6 Big Misconceptions About Civility and Civil Debate


One of the reasons for the lack of civil debate in American politics is the misconceptions about what it is. Here are some of the most prevalent myths:

1. "Civil debate means compromising on what you believe and being bipartisan."

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A lot of people think that civil debate amounts to giving up on what you believe and agreeing with the opposition. But civil debate doesn't mean that you have to compromise on anything or be moderate or centrist. It just means that, whatever you stand for, you do it without calling your opponents names or distorting what they believe in.

Civil debate is like good sportsmanship and fair play: it's fine to try to beat the other team, you're just not allowed to cheat. In the context of political debate, incivility is cheating.

2. "Civil debate means not criticizing positions you disagree with."

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Similar to the first point, it's perfectly OK to criticize political positions you think are wrong. But you can't exaggerate and misrepresent those positions.

For instance, someone who calls for more spending or higher taxes isn't instantly a communist who wants a government takeover of the whole economy, and someone who calls for less spending or lower taxes isn't instantly a Social Darwinist who thinks it's wrong to help poor people. These caricatures are false, derisive, and unfair.

3. "To commit to civil debate, you have to avoid certain politicians and pundits."

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The point of civil debate is to reject certain behaviors, not people. Granted, there are folks in politics who resort to name-calling and caricature, and when they do we should rebuke what they've done.

But you can't write those people off and reject everything they say. Even the politicians or pundits you disagree with frequently say things that are true or offer valuable insights.

Instead, we should develop a filter so that we can listen to a person, identify any name-calling and reject it, while allowing the rest of it through and evaluating it on its merits.

4. "It's a false equivalence to say both parties are equally uncivil."

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Anyone who says that one party engages in more name-calling than the other has a lot of work do. There's so much name-calling out there, you might as well try to see if there are more stars on the right-hand side of the sky or the left-hand side.

We should demand evidence from anyone who makes this kind of claim. Not a few anecdotes, but a rigorous empirical survey. Otherwise, they're claiming an unfounded asymmetry.

This idea that it's somehow obvious which party is more responsible for incivility plays into the idea that only the other side needs to clean up their act. Since both parties take this attitude, they each wait for the other to take the initiative. Hence Rush Limbaugh's apology to Sandra Fluke for calling her a "slut" and "prostitute", in which he said that he erred by behaving too much like liberals and Democrats, as if they're the only ones who do that sort of thing.

5. "Civility is bogus, it's just a scam our opponents use to bash us."

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It's true that there are people on both sides of the aisle who advocate civility but who don't practice what they preach. However, it's the people who are hypocritical, not the standard. While it's frustrating to be lectured on civility by people who are also calling you every name in the book, the solution is to call people out for failing to live up to what they espouse, not to reject the ideal of civil debate.

When pundits like Paul Krugman call for dispensing with civility — and then describe their opponents as supporting "cruel nonsense" — we should resist. If you disagree with something, say, "I think this is wrong," and then explain why without resorting to calling people evil or stupid.

Is that so difficult?

6. "I set a good example when it comes to civil debate."

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If you were setting a good example of civility, people in your own party would probably hate you, because the behavior of each party leaves plenty of room for criticism. And civil debate means refraining from name-calling and denouncing it when others resort to it.

President Barack Obama and former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-Utah) are politicians who think they're perfectly civil, though it's a reputation they don't deserve. Huntsman caricatured his own GOP opponents as running from science, and President Obama calls Republicans Social Darwinists (even as he complains about being called a socialist), and does little to rein in invective from allies such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr.

And this is a real problem: we don't have any prominent examples of civil debate in the political arena. Hopefully, though, by being thoughtful about what counts as legitimate discussion and what counts as name-calling, the millennial generation will change that.