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A Crisis in Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents – A Study in Left Wing Bias

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Published on: June 16, 2020

A Crisis in Civility? Political Discourse and Its Discontents. Edited by R. G. Boatright, T.J. Shaffer, S. Sobieraj and D. G. Young. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019. 238 pp. $39.96 (paperback).

To cite this book:

Boatright, R. (Ed.), Shaffer, T. (Ed.), Sobieraj, S. (Ed.), Goldthwaite Young, D. (Ed.). (2019). A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents. New York: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.4324/9781351051989

The book Crisis in Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontentsattempts to break down and define the issue of civility in a day when America is seemingly more divided than ever before. Bringing civil discourse back to the national conversation is viewed through the lens of scholars in various fields of academia like sociology, economics, psychology, communications, and political science. America’s major political parties are comprised of two opposing ideologies that are in direct contradiction with one another and fighting for dominance. The question arises whether the two can resolve their differences in a civil manner. Crisis in Civility lays the groundwork for differentiating between civil and uncivil discourse while also distinguishing the differences between the way the public views civility as opposed to how scholars and politicians may define it. It also does an in-depth evaluation of how the public’s definition of civil or uncivil rhetoric can change based on social group perceptions and whether they are considered an in or out group. Unfortunately, the book’s positive attributes end here. There is an obvious bias and a failure to define not only the word civility itself but the worldview and political opinions of one political party in an agreeable manner. The whole book is written from the perspective that the presidential election of 2016 represents one of the most uncivil times in American history, and that is all due to who the hard political left routinely referred to as “the deplorables.” One chapter even goes so far as identifying the political right as white supremacists, a narrative commonly pushed in the mainstream media.  Crisis in Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents fails to define our nation for what it is, a constitutional republic and continually refers to it as a democracy, without defining the differences. There is indeed a legitimate question whether a civil conversation can take place between two opposing worldviews when one side is not accurately represented, and the terms of civil discourse are defined by one side only.

Chapter one starts by breaking down civility into two separate concepts, civility of politeness and civility of responsiveness (Laden pp. 10) Each can be characterized by the theoretical outlook one may have and how it affects their views on civil discourse (Laden pp. 10). Civility as politeness suggests that the language we use and the way we present our self, our mannerisms if you will, may bear as much weight on the discourse as the logic behind the argument. For example, Laden (2019) uses the example of Representative Joe Wilson calling President Obama a liar over his “Obamacare” claims on the floor of the House of Representatives. He suggests that this was rude, uncivil behavior even though the person being called a liar may be lying.  He is suggesting that yelling the truth at someone telling a lie is just as uncivil as lying itself. In this writer’s opinion, the bias of the author is showing by using this as an example because there is no explanation of why Representative Wilson called President Obama a liar. This is an issue that strikes right at the heart of what divides America so deeply. The battle between socialized medicine and free markets. Two ideologies diametrically opposed to one another.

The next concept is referred to as civility as responsiveness (Laden, pp. 13). This is best explained by describing civility as a virtue of life in a cooperative society which involves the willingness to consider others’ ideas and when one should adjust their own positions in consideration of others (Kingwell 1995; Gutmann and Thompson 1998). These are excellent virtues to possess in civil dialogue. Laden (2019) describes them by saying that civility as responsiveness involves striving to understand others’ positions even if they are alien to our own and seem rude in tone. Again, political discourse in America is not being done by two political parties that hold the same ideals but have different views on implementing them. The worldviews are vastly different. For example, the Democrat left has as much interest in listening to why the ban on AR-15’s had no effect on crime as Republicans do on wealth redistribution. These two beliefs are made up of two completely different views which each side holds onto vehemently. Neither one is willing, nor likely to compromise.

Civility as responsiveness has less to do with politeness than the nature of the argument itself (Laden, pp. 14). People can exercise civility as politeness without giving any consideration to the thoughts or positions of others and still be considered as behaving uncivilly. Civility of responsiveness is described as an action that sets aside personal bias in favor of a deliberative process (Laden, pp. 24). The author claims that the civilly responsive citizen sacrifices his own political advantages in the name of compromise. This suggests that neither side has a position worth fighting for. Is it civil to sacrifice principles of truth to appear polite? Finally, the author’s biased view of American life shows on page 26 when he describes our society as being unjust by claiming we alienate large segments of the population and, by using the typical wealth inequality argument so often used by political elites. Political elites no less that are worth billions.

The view held by the right is never described in this book. The wealth inequality argument suggests that it is the government’s job to distribute wealth equally and that it is not something created through individual effort. Individuals are the owners of their labor. Secondly, the argument that there are large segments of the population that are alienated revolves around the same argument the political left always makes. That America is racist. Attempting to define terms of civil discourse without defining the beliefs the opposing sides are arguing for is from the beginning, a dead end.

Chapter two begins to dive into the public’s perception of civility. The author of this chapter tends to show less bias, (though one could argue she is displaying bias from the other side in some instances) and presents her argument strictly based on the data that exists. While she refers to the 2016 presidential election as tumultuous, she acknowledges that the public saw uncivil behavior from both democrats and republicans. The main point of the chapter revolves around the issue of personal vs public incivility. Personal incivility is considered behavior that may go against what one perceives as normal polite behavior (Muddiman, pp. 32). It entails, name-calling, interrupting, and displaying one’s emotions while engaged in an argument (Muddiman, pp. 32). Public level incivility on the other hand is considered anything that violates the normal political or deliberative processes (Muddiman, pp. 32). Just as chapter one describes civility as politeness as responsiveness as being more concerned with the heart of the issue and less with politeness, public incivility revolves around the idea of political opponents refusing to consider each other’s positions and breaking formal political procedures (Muddiman, pp. 33). The general public, according to Muddiman (2019), generally views incivility as anything from failure to compromise on meaningful legislation, to what they referred to as playing the race or gender card, and even political parties making threats against the constitution.

Chapter two also discusses the idea that people will generally view civil or uncivil behavior based on their own biases and political leanings (Muddiman, pp. 37). Political parties, according to social identity theory (Muddiman, pp. 37) are viewed by the public as in or out groups. The party they identify with is typically considered the in group. When members of their political party break with political norms or behave in a manner consistent with their perceptions of civil or uncivil behavior, they are likely to side with their personal bias on the issue and make excuses for the behavior. This, again, hints at the idea that any real civility will forever be out of reach because the two opposing parties are both basing their positions on deeply rooted principles that define their worldview. Muddiman (2019) goes on to ask what the differences are between the public perception of incivility and those conducting research in the field as people tend to expand their definitions of what constitutes civil or uncivil behavior beyond the standard academic definitions. Muddiman (2019) concludes by suggesting that incivility largely lies in the eye of the beholder while acknowledging that simply going off of what a largely divided public view as civil behavior may not answer the question.

Chapter three addresses the definitional aspects of civility and whether the scholarly descriptions are on par with how the public views it (Kenski, et al, pp. 45). The findings are on par with chapter two in the sense that citizens’ perceptions of civility differ widely from that of scholars. Most notably in the areas of what they consider to be civil dialogue. Perceptions of incivility among the public are rude and insensitive behavior towards others (Kenski, et al, pp. 50). The chapter goes in-depth describing the varying degrees the public views incivility in speech, rating it based on several variables. While they are trying to determine what types of speech the public determines to be the most uncivil, it almost seems unnecessary to break it down to such extents. For example, there are slight variations between the different types of speech. Kenski, et al, (2019) note that there is only a one-point deviation between the way the public views name-calling, for example, and lying about political intentions (52).  Most interesting, is the finding that the public does not share the same view that accusations of lying are not viewed as detrimentally as the scholarly definitions may suggest (Kenski, et al, pp. 52).  From this writer’s perspective, this part of the chapter is unnecessary as the previous chapter already set out to define the differences between scholarly and public perceptions.

The next part of the chapter attempts to define the differences in gender perception. Kenski, et al, (2019) take note that women are far less likely to exhibit real political knowledge than men, while also taking less interest and being less involved (53) than men are. Interestingly, however, they tend to show up in larger numbers to vote. Women also, are more likely to base their opinions on incivility based on the different types of speech than men are (54). While this may seem like important information this chapter muddies the waters if you will by diving too deep into what types of comments men and women may view as civil or uncivil.  Kenski, et al, (2019) notes that the differences can be razor-thin between the ways men and women view certain comments. It is difficult to determine, unless one is trying to specifically formulate a way to appeal to one demographic, why such insignificant differences matter. The chapter concludes by saying the same thing as Muddiman in chapter two. The definition of incivility largely lies in the public perception (Kenski, et al, pp. 55) and there is some discrepancy in the ways different people view speech. Among the public, however, is the shared perception that name-calling, and vulgar comments are considered uncivil (Kenski, et al, pp. 55). The author notes that the findings in this chapter may prove useful in considering the consequences of certain types of speech.

Thus far, the main idea behind the book has been describing how the public views civility in politics and the different concepts that describe civility. Chapter four discusses the importance of tone in the speaker’s voice. The author, Emily Sydnor, also seems to be displaying her personal bias as the chapter immediately refers to President Trump’s uncivil behavior while a few paragraphs later, refers to President Bush in the same manner. While she does mention President Reagan in a positive light, there is nothing referring to any uncivil behavior by democrats in a manner that directly implicates them. Sydnor highlights essentially the same thing that was noted in chapter 3 concerning what people saw as uncivil behavior. Messages that directly address certain individuals while staying on topic, no matter if they disagree are not necessarily considered uncivil until inflammatory language is used (Sydnor, pp. 62). This is not any different than saying that people view name calling and vulgar language as being uncivil. The same point is made on page 62 when Sydnor describes the various actions people consider to be uncivil while attempting to break it down by demographic as which group of people view what behavior more uncivilly. Sydnor points out that incivility may be defined by the message or ideas presented by certain speakers. For example, she cites the Allegheny Survey of 2016 (63) that shows attacks against a person’s patriotism, race or sexual orientation constitute the highest levels of incivility. Sydnor’s bias shows again by using President Trump’s statements on illegal immigration as an example of uncivil dialogue (63) and highlighting Hillary Clinton remarking on it by saying he used “deeply offensive rhetoric” (64). Sydnor failed to acknowledge the fact that Hillary Clinton routinely referred to Trump and his supporters as “deplorables” without making any attempt to understand what our views are. From this perspective, the rules of civility of responsiveness are being broken by the people that the authors of this book seem to support. The point is that sometimes views on civility are often based on who is delivering a message along with the tone. President Trump said that illegal immigrants are bringing in drugs. This is true, but it is viewed as uncivil because of the tone. Finally, Sydnor introduces another concept that the rest of this review will be based on. On page 63 she cites studies by Chaff and Zerilli suggesting that sometimes incivility is called for when addressing injustices. This is an idea that presents itself again in chapter 9. The rest of this review will start with this idea and cover other important points aside from the public perception of civility.

Chapter 9 starts by highlighting a poll suggesting that seventy-eight percent of the surveyed electorate viewed the Republican primary of 2016 as rude, while only forty-one percent saw the Democrat primary that way (Gastil, pp. 161). This does more to show the bias of the author in this writer’s opinion because there is no mention of the fact that President Trump won the election and for what reasons. From the perspective of the Republican party, the eight years of President Obama discrediting American ideals, suggesting that everyone that disagreed with him or his policies was racist and the lies he told about Obamacare, along with the damage many people felt it caused to our health care system is the reason Trump was elected in the first place. The perspective of Republicans is never considered in this book. In fact, chapter 9 is written from the perspective that the mainstream narrative the media generally pushes, depicting America as a racist country rooted in white supremacism. Gastil, speaking in the first person (169) describes the partisan struggle in the United States by referring to President Trump as a president who threatens democracy, incites violence, and encourages white supremacists. This is an inflammatory opinion and does little to advance any real dialogue. Furthermore, America is not a democracy. Democracy is where majority rules hands down.  we have democratic processes, but we are a Democratic Republic. The book fails to differentiate. This writer could point to several examples where the President Obama’s rhetoric was thought to incite hatred against the police over situations that were inaccurately, and to the opinion of many on the right, purposefully misrepresented by the media. What this writer finds most disturbing about Gastil’s writing is found on page 170 where he says that winning every election from this day forward may require the use of uncivil actions such as shutting out and shutting down political opponents. He says, “Civility can wait for a better day when democracy’s institutions have been secured and normal political life can resume” (Gastil, pp. 170). This writer was left with the impression that Mr. Gastil was a reader and follower of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (25), where in chapter two, Alinsky refers to the morality of means and ends or the common belief in politics that the ends justify the means. Saul Alinsky is very relevant here because Hillary Clinton, who is mentioned several times in a light suggesting she brings virtue or a more moral tone to Trump’s disrespectful rhetoric wrote her college thesis on Saul Alinsky entitled “There is Only the Fight.” The general misconceived notion is that America is a land of oppression, not freedom. That is a matter of opinion, not fact.

At this point, the question must be asked because it has thus far been left unaddressed. What constitutes normalcy in American life? This is a concept that would garner vastly different responses, not only from the political left and right but from the American people as well. The same is true with terms like white supremacism and racism for that matter. Furthermore, Mr. Gastil’s comments reinforce a concept of civility found earlier in the book. One that this writer saved for this point in the review. Laden, who in chapter one described the two concepts of civility suggested that uncivil arguments were more centered around winning an argument where being civil was concerned with reaching agreements (Laden, pp. 19-20). Is Mr. Gastil admitting that the nature of the political left is more concerned with winning than reaching any civil consensus? That is what his rhetoric on page 170 suggests.

This book is full of examples that suggest this idea, while also failing to define certain terms and ideologies accurately. For instance, on page 132 of chapter seven, the authors, J. Cherie Strachan and Michael R. Wolfe, refer to republicans as authoritarians who stand opposed to political correctness. Political correctness is viewed by many Republicans as a tool to suppress free speech. Therefore, the people insisting on adhering to the terms of political correctness would be the authoritarians. This is another example demonstrating the vast differences between the two political parties and the unlikelihood of real political civility. Furthermore, on page 113 they suggest that “uncivil or rude interactions, on the other hand, are characterized by ad hominem attacks, name-calling, overt challenges, and interruptions. These are rhetorical moves that, often purposefully, diminish the likelihood of future collaboration” (Strachan & Wolfe, pp. 113). Is not referring to the Republican party as authoritarian without trying to understand their viewpoint an example of an ad hominem attack? Finally, in chapter seven we see another example of failing to define specific terms. Strachan & Wolfe (121) bring up the issue of American Muslims and their attempts to build a Mosque at ground zero, the site of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Many people responded to this with offense because it was suggested that opposition to such an action was based on deeply rooted racism and suspicion of the Muslim community. The truth is that that day was one of the most horrific in most Americans’ memory. The idea that a mosque would be built there was offensive for that reason. The Muslim community, who has been more than welcome in America, demonstrated an inability to show sensitivity to our concerns. There are Mosques all over America and in most cases, American’s do not object to them. Stracham and Wolfe, on page 114 suggest the following ̶

Advocates of deliberation point out that when people continue to engage with one another despite their differences, they not only learn to how to listen but also may use new insights to develop shared solutions, sometimes referred to as the “third way” or “win-win” solutions, that could not be uncovered without deliberation. They also learn to set aside issues that will damage their ability to cooperate on less controversial items—which allows them to identify “shared pain” or “shared sacrifice” solutions and to avoid gridlock.

Are they subtly suggesting that only one side needs to show this level of tolerance towards another person or parties’ position? Why would the Muslim community not be expected to show sympathy and understanding of our positions concerning the 9-11 mosque?

Finally, chapter 11 offers an interesting insight into the book itself and possibly the reason the studies on civility are occurring in the first place. To the credit of the author, Timothy J. Schaffer, he acknowledges there is a struggle in ideologies between the concepts of individualism and communitarianism (188) to a certain degree. The focus of the chapter, however, has left this writer wondering what his true position is, along with the aims of the research presented in the book. The chapter revolves around the civil discussions that took place in the 1930s and ’40s, particularly concerning the passage of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Schaffer (2019) acknowledges that the New Deal was not necessarily viewed by all as a good thing. Too many, it represents America’s turn towards socialism as the government took over large areas of land and agricultural development. The focus of the chapter revolves around the development of discussion methods that were designed, as Schaffer (2019) suggests, to get the community involved. Given the idea that our country was founded as a constitutional republic where the government was not supposed to own land, but it was for the people to own, the true nature of these discussions should be considered. Especially realizing that much of what the federal government was after they were able to obtain through these discussions. This caught this writer’s interest because there is something called the Delphi technique which is a form of facilitating public discussions while ensuring that they go the way the facilitators desire. People are allowed their input, but techniques are employed to persuade people to the other side, or at the very least, give the impression their input matters. For example, in the article entitled The Delphi method: A description, review, and criticism, the author writes that when using the Delphi technique dominant speakers can not only control the discussion but the outcomes (Fisher, 1978).

To conclude, Crisis in Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents provides great research and insight into the issues of civil discourse. The public’s perception of what constitutes civility, as opposed to the political elite or scholar’s definition is examined thoroughly. It has been revealed, for example, that the public holds a certain bias towards their own political ideology and are more likely to view their own side behavior as civil despite displaying the same kind of behavior as their opposition. The message that civility largely lies in the eyes of public perception rings true through several chapters of the book almost dominating as a major theme in the first half. Unfortunately, the book also is written, for the most part, with a severe left-wing bias pushing the narrative that many of America’s ideals stem from racism, wealth inequality, sexism and any other “ism” that can be thrown into the mix. The election of Donald Trump, in the opinion of many of the authors, represents America’s most uncivil time, which is debatable. It certainly uncivil, however, to claim that all the incivility came from the right alone is itself, uncivil and dishonest. The authors in the book fail to live up to some of the very descriptions they offer as being examples of what entails civil discourse while also, failing in many cases, to describe the true nature of what Republicans describe as their political beliefs. Many chapters are simply written from the perspective that civil discourse is needed because the nation is in an epic battle against white supremacism. This is also a term that is defined in a vastly way between the left and the right. In all honesty, after finishing this book, this writer was left the impression that the authors were more concerned with defining the terms of political discussions for their own purposes than they were with actually engaging in civil debate with the opposition.

The ideological debate between the Republicans and Democrats revolves around the issue of whether men can be free or whether they need to be managed and tended to. Democrats argue for a welfare state while Republicans are supposed to stand for individual liberty. One of these ideologies represents an absolute, in this writer’s opinion. Men are created free, by God, according to the founders of our nation. John Adams argued that our constitution was for a moral and religious people and unsuited for any other (John Adams Center). The belief was based on the notion that men could be free because we adhered to the absolute moral truth that came from believing in the Christian God. John Locke, for example, argued that men should take heed to follow God’s law first because natural religion was not easily misunderstood (Bizzell & Herzberg, 824). This was the foundation of American life and it is supposed to be the ideals that represent the Republican party, not racism or white supremacism. It is not the republican party that insists minorities need the welfare state to make an equal playing ground. The democrat’s beliefs are more centered around moral relativism or humanist philosophy. Their governing philosophy is more in line with Peter Ramus’ beliefs that men did not need religion (Bizzell & Herzberg, 678) to argue from a moral standpoint. He believed men could define their own morality and reason on their own, without a God (Bizzell & Herzberg, 675). That makes up the general view of the Democrat party. After all, they removed God from their campaign platform in 2012. Crisis in Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents is anything but a plan to develop civil rhetoric designed to find the truth and an agreeable consensus. It is more akin to how John Locke would define man’s logic ̶ “books and other forms of logic that are liable to the common and natural obscurities and difficulties incident to words” (Bizzell & Herzberg, 824). In some places, despite its best efforts, the book is confusing in its attempts to define every possible perspective on every type of civil discourse. Much of the book revolves around determining the differences between the way the public, politicians and scholars view civil or uncivil behavior without addressing the real issues which create the division causing the incivility. It is just written from a perspective that America is bad, and its problems are due to republicans, essentially. Perhaps, the authors would do better to pursue an accurate description of how Republicans view race relations, political processes, and other social issues, as the book claims that is what makes up civil behavior. The American constitution is the one remaining document in the world where individual dignity and identity supersedes government power. In this writer’s opinion, it is still worth fighting for.

Alinsky, S. (1972) Rules for RadicalsNew York. Vintage Books.

Fischer, R. (1978). The Delphi method: A description, review, and criticism. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 4(2), 64-70. Retrieved from http://www.journals.elsevier.com/the-journal-of-academiclibrarianship/

Gastil, J. (2019) Seeking a Mutuality of Tolerance. From  A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents. New York: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.4324/9781351051989

Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson. 1998. Democracy and Disagreement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kenski, K., Coe, K. & Rains, A. S. (2019) Perceptions of Civility in Public Discourse. From  A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents. New York: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.4324/9781351051989

Kingwell, Mark. 1995. A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue, and the Politics of Pluralism. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Laden, S, A. (2019) Two Concepts of Civility. From  A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents. New York: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.4324/9781351051989

Locke, J. (1689) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. From Bizzell, P. & Herzberg, B. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to The Present 2nd Ed. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Muddiman, A. (2019) How People Perceive Political Incivility. From A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents. New York: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.4324/9781351051989

Ramus, P. (1549) Arguments in Rhetoric Against Quintilian. From Bizzell, P. & Herzberg, B. (2001) The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to The Present 2nd Ed. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Sydnor, E. (2019) Signaling Incivility. From  A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents. New York: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.4324/9781351051989

Strachan, C & Wolfe, R. M. (2019) Can Civility and Deliberation Disrupt the Deep Roots of Polarization? From  A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents. New York: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.4324/9781351051989

Schaffer, J, T. (2019) Enabling Civil Discourse. From  A Crisis of Civility: Political Discourse and its Discontents. New York: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.4324/9781351051989

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