A few weeks ago former Senator Jeff Flake, NPR producer/reporter Zoe Chase, and historian Jon Meacham spoke at Vanderbilt University. It was a packed house, and the conversation was well informed, if stilted at times. Flake, now known for his call to elevate our discourse in political arenas, has consistently lamented the lack of civility in the public sphere. He is seen by some as a brave maverick who stood up to forces in his party accustomed to demonizing voices of dissent, and he had to leave politics as a result.
For the past month I have explored the divide between who we hope to be and who we sometimes become. It has often been uncomfortable, as it’s hard to see our hypocrisies, to notice our lies and to trace the impact of our delusions on our selves and others. Such periods of reflection are necessary for people who believe everything matters, and yet, I am reminded of the words my mother often sends me when she reads my work: “Remember to notice the good! Don’t just highlight the bad, but celebrate the good.”
We have never more passionately celebrated calls for respectful disagreement and civil discussion. Hooray! Senator Flake issued such rhetorical admonitions, chastising those who demonized others. In teaching a course on composition and rhetoric this semester I have been delighted to remember that rhetoric is the study of how new information interacts with old information. How do we allow new ideas to impact the perspectives we already hold on an issue? A look at various media, the Senate floor, or a church hallway might reveal we are quite bad at reaching across lines of difference, at receiving the experience of another that seems to threaten the stability of an idea we espouse.
A scholar named Jim Corder argues that we are generally terrible at having our ideas challenged because we haven’t been honest about how we developed them in the first place. In other words, the narratives we tell ourselves about how the world works are deeply entwined in our own sense of self, and our positions are therefore not mere intellectual thought experiments, but rather reflections of us. We argue fiercely, easily feeling defensive or attacked, because we embody—we have become—what we believe. When a person undermines that belief or tries to toss it aside we feel as though they are tossing our very selves aside.
Can we find ways to evaluate how our core life experiences shape the ideas we esteem and the positions we hold? If we want to converse civilly, we must also examine ideas or positions that result from equally genuine and valuable life experiences, even if they are not our own. Seen in this light, Flake’s call is surely necessary, if not noble. I’m thankful he used his platform to name incivility when he saw it, but I am afraid our conversation on civility is a distraction from the policy issues that undergird it. Many of us, like a starving person offered a piece of bread, seize these critiques of how we speak to one another, consuming them with gratitude. Something in us resonates as we cry, “Finally! We’re better than this! We value character and good ideas, we don’t bully and rely on stereotypes!”
The truth, of course, is that biases often impact our speech, assumptions and thinking without our recognizing them; however, I’m afraid that when we focus on speech, we miss the more important point. The biases that ooze out in our discourse, shocking us, heavily influence our ideas about fairness and justice. They impact the policies we support, and allow us to vote into law ideas that codify our incivility. Our discourse is surely problematic, but if we think our words are unkind, think about the policies those words produce. Our speech can be civil while our policies do violence to those with little power. I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse, while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.
This week a photo depicting a white man in blackface next to a Klansmen was found on the Medical School yearbook page of Virginia’s Governor. He apologized for his poor taste and begged for the right to earn the trust of Virginians. Bafflingly, a day later he claimed he couldn’t recall if he was actually in the picture, so it should not reflect poorly on him, although he did recall using a bit of shoe polish to darken his skin on another occasion. As the mounting calls for his resignation clash with his refusal to do so, many people are consumed with labeling him racist or with arguing it was a long time ago and we all make mistakes.
Our past choices—the things we thought funny or appropriate—certainly reveal much about what we valued and to whom we listened. When they surface, it is customary to argue indefinitely about what those choices reveal about us then and now. However, such discussions distract us from a better question: Has he governed in a way that rejects stereotypes, racial hierarchies, and a preference for the powerful at the expense of the poor, or has he not? Who are his friends and advisors today? Rather than arguing about whether a picture makes one racist, what if we expanded our conversation so that we examine how the actions of a person demonstrate their values?
Let’s ask more of ourselves than Senator Flake or Governor Northam do, so that we don’t lose sight of the physical impact of our uncivil speech or past jokes. Yes, we need to clean up our rhetoric, and engage others with respect. How much more important is it for us to see the devastating impact of our choice to overlook the lives of others?
I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse,
while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.
My hopeful conclusion is simply this: civil discourse and civil governance are not mutually exclusive. Let’s be people of word and deed. Let’s be people who don’t just point fingers at others, but who ask ourselves how we came to believe the things we believe. Whose experience did we value when we decided how the world worked and what solutions are needed? Please do call out incivility, or past racist acts, but it is foolish to then call it a day, stopping with our speech or personal behavior alone. We must take the next step and appeal to one another for ongoing civil governance. Let’s ask our leaders to behave and speak respectfully, but let’s demand that they support policies that treat all people civilly.