Fired up

Why do public debates seem so bitter these days?

By John Deever

The thin, bearded man sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of a crowd of chanting protesters. He holds a sign reading, “Got Parkinson’s? I do.
You might. Thanks for helping. That’s community.”

A man bends over to shout at him: “If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong end of town!” Another protester flings a dollar bill at the seated man, then a second one, screaming, “No more handouts!”

Add YouTube, and stir.

This ugly scene last March during the debate on health care reform put Columbus in the national spotlight. Sixty-year-old Robert Letcher—a former nuclear engineer now disabled by Parkinson’s disease—sat down too close to the anti-reform Tea Party fringe and wound up a casualty in the war on civility.

Letcher later told the Columbus Dispatch, “People from both sides were screaming at each other. They were screaming and not engaging.”

Have public conversations degenerated to the point where screaming is all that makes sense? Are public disagreements so intense, intractable, and polarized that reasoned discussion has no place? Is your side so threatening and wrong that I must defend mine with bitter, personal attacks?

From road rage to radio rants—why are we all so angry?

Frustration breeds bitterness

The acrimonious health care debate, which sparked scenes like the one described above, left some people wondering about the tone of public conversation these days.

Michael Neblo, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State, published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe last year in which he wrote, “Many citizens struggle even to understand the policy process, much less have their voices heard in it. As a result, they’ve become increasingly disengaged. Those who remain have become more extreme and more frustrated. In response, members of Congress have become increasingly wary of uncontrolled encounters with constituents.”

Self-professed liberals such as journalist Bill Moyers decry the Fox News “haters”—Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. Right-wing ranters endanger the country, liberals claim, by stoking fear and sowing hatred.

But it’s not only members of the right who are shouting instead of speaking their disapproval.

Karl Rove’s book tour this year was frequently disrupted by left-wing activists intent on preventing neutral or conservative listeners in the audience from hearing Rove’s story. In March, law professor and former Bush administration counsel John Yoo was heckled and called a “war criminal” when he spoke at the University of Virginia.

An epidemic of narcissism?

Psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell trace public incivility to what they call rampant self-admiration. In The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, they wrote: “Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.”

They ground their argument in data: “By 2006, one in four college students agreed with a majority of items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits.” Cosmetic surgery increased fivefold in the last 10 years, and Time magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year—in the era of MySpace, YouTube, and 24/7 blogging—was “You.”

Amy Brunell is an assistant professor of psychology at the Newark campus who has collaborated with Campbell and Twenge. “A lot of scholars point [rightly] to reality TV and social networking sites,” Brunell said, “but a lot has to be said about parenting. Some parents say, ‘My child is special,’ ‘My child can do no wrong.’

“Other reinforcers in our society exist, too. For example, as professors, we commonly lament that our students are growing more and more entitled—but we frequently reinforce this by giving in to what they want.”

Does an epidemic of narcissism explain the lack of civil discourse? Narcissists, after all, “are lousy at taking criticism and learning from mistakes,” Twenge and Campbell wrote. “They also like to blame everyone and everything except themselves for their shortcomings.” Social behavior “cascades into . . . lack of empathy, incivility, entitlement, and aggression.”

Brunell believes narcissistic behavior is indeed partly to blame.

“Narcissistic people are rude, overly demanding, impatient, and impulsive,” she said. “They take little or no responsibility for their actions unless they are getting credit or rewarded for them—in which case they will take all the responsibility.”

Still, she added, “I think our society has become more informal in general, and a lot of personal boundaries that once existed no longer do.”

A deeper look

In the political arena, Neblo, the political science professor, believes that what seems to be a rise in public incivility might simply be more frequent reporting of ugly incidents.

“People define incivility differently,” he said.   “Also, what do we mean by ‘public discourse’? Town hall meetings? Certainly last summer was rowdier than in recent memory. Do we mean behavior on the floor of Congress? If so, then things are relatively civil today by historical standards, when fistfights were fairly common and C-SPAN did not make every moment public and permanent.”

Neblo said, “We are seeing more incivility, but mostly because new technology means that more of all kinds of behavior is being captured and disseminated.”

Now that incivility is so common, it’s difficult to be shocked anymore. And isn’t that in itself a bit shocking?

“The worry,” Neblo said, “is that being exposed to more incivility this way will cause some people to disengage in disgust. Others might change their views of what is normal or acceptable in public discourse. In either case, the change in perceptions could drive a real rise in incivility over time.”

However, Deborah Merritt, a professor of law, sociology, and public policy, points out that some forms of public communication may actually be more civil than in the past.

“Before 1970, it was commonplace for Americans to use racist, sexist, and other derogatory terms to refer to people of different races and religions,” Merritt said.

“My elementary-school classmates used words every day during the early 1960s that executives would be fired for saying today,” she said. “These derogatory references—and the attitudes they connoted—were commonplace even among educated and ‘polite’ people.”

Like Neblo, Merritt believes that what gets reported in the information stream has changed. “We properly regard derogatory words as ‘uncivil,’” she said. “Such comments make big news.

“But the vast majority of Americans no longer make those derogatory references on a regular basis, and the vast majority no longer hold those attitudes. The dramatic decline in biases of all sorts means we are much more civil people.”

When a health care reform protester reportedly shouted the N-word at African American Democratic congressman John Lewis last year, the outburst was instantly and universally excoriated. Nevertheless, anger over health care reform was directed at public officials in town hall after town hall.

The town hall meeting, online

Neblo and several colleagues conducted Internet town hall meetings in which 13 members of Congress from both parties met with a random cross-section of the public in
a chat room.

 “Not once, in more than 20 sessions with over 600 citizen participants, did we get a question like the ones shown on TV. There were no verbal equivalents of citizens wearing weapons in holsters to the sessions, no nuclear attacks on members’ patriotism or humanity,” Neblo said.

“Members had to answer thoughtful and sometimes difficult questions. When a constituent challenged a Republican congressman on welfare benefits for the offspring of illegal immigrants—a sensitive issue in his district—he defended his belief that a decent country doesn’t let children starve in the street. Things sometimes heated up, but nobody had to call upon the Capitol Police for protection.”

Neblo said the online format “was about helping representative democracy work more like its textbook version. Face-to-face town halls tend to attract a highly unrepresentative and extreme slice of the public. Our events lowered some barriers, so we had groups that looked more like the larger public.”

Some constituents ended up with a more favorable view of their elected officials, Neblo said. “They came to see that reasonable people can disagree on complex issues, and that deliberation is often valuable even if a given individual does not change her mind.”

Naturally, people with extreme feelings about issues are going to voice them. “Civil discourse is not the same as polite, unemotional discourse. Democracies sometimes need passionate protest, and civil disobedience can actually be a duty in extreme cases,” Neblo said.

“The tricky part is knowing the difference between gross injustices that cry out for redress and deep but reasonable disagreements that people in a diverse society cannot avoid. Who is to decide which is which?”

The kids are all right

National politicians might learn a thing or two from the supposedly narcissistic young people who are practicing politics in student government today.

Josh Ramzy, president of OUTinBusiness at Ohio State’s Max M. Fisher College of Business, served in Undergraduate Student Government last year. Ramzy said USG doesn’t generally see deeply uncivil discourse.

“Many times there are contentious exchanges of opinion, . . . but after a vote is taken or a decision is made, most shake it off and avoid taking it personally. While Ohio State is a huge place, I still believe there is the fear of alienating too many people with such behavior. You may need their favor on the next issue.”

As in the big leagues, campaign time turns tough. “The organization does have a history of rather heated campaigns where the conduct of candidates has been questionable,” Ramzy said. “In the last year there was a great stride in the organization to make it more social and require responsibility to peers.”

Ashley Sinram, last year’s USG chief of staff, said, “In the past, [election season] has been a very contentious time in which candidates openly debate, argue, and file complaints against one another. The past two years have seen zero judicial panel cases filed by campaign teams. I think the culture has evolved to being more about the issues than the personal vendettas of the candidates.

“Overall, the importance of recognizing the concept of ‘service over self’ in student involvement, especially student government, is crucial to deterring incivility in discourse,” Sinram said. “If members of USG take things personally when they lose debates, [or if] someone questions them, . . . they are much more likely to react emotionally and perhaps with a lack of civility.

“I think the majority of the people in USG have adopted the ‘service over self’ philosophy. We have a much better, effective, and civil organization because of it.”

Ohio State’s motto, after all, is “Education for citizenship.” The word “incivility” is derived from the Latin incivilis—meaning “not of a citizen.”

Is uncivil public behavior essentially failing at one’s civic duty?

“We have a duty as citizens to foster reasoned discourse about public matters,” Neblo said. “Many people, however, treat political choices like consumer choices. It’s as if political discourse were a call-in show on sports radio: ‘McCain sucks! Obama rules!’ or vice versa.”

This is your brain on the Internet

Neblo’s electronic town hall meetings fostered an atmosphere of trust and information-sharing. However, other online venues are struggling with the descent into vicious public castigation.

Like many newspapers and Web sites, the Columbus Dispatch has been muttering about how time-consuming it is to police comments on its message boards. In a pair of columns in January, editor Benjamin Marrison lamented reader incivility, describing how a story about a Liberian immigrant drew racist and hateful postings.

A story about the death penalty likewise polarized commenters. “Being supportive of the death penalty is anyone’s right. Spewing hate via our Web site is not. Comments that crossed the line of civility were removed from both stories,” Marrison said.

“Most of the people who [post comments on message boards] have no earthly idea what they are talking about,” Twenge and Campbell wrote.

“They think they do—common among people with a tendency toward narcissism—but they’re clueless. The comments that do say something intelligent are often lost in the mountains of ignorance.”

Some researchers say Internet use may actually rewire our brains to have less patience and consideration for others—a trend that could mean greater incivility in public discourse. Stress resulting from too much time on the computer goes up, while stress-releasing physical activity goes down.

And people across the political spectrum are genuinely dismayed, Neblo said. “Many citizens feel driven to stridency out of sincere concern. They believe that the barbarians are at the gate and the time for polite conversation has passed.”

The power of civility

Other analysts see another problem. Washington Post education blogger Jay Mathews wrote, “High schools don’t spend nearly as much time as they should having students practice public presentations and intelligent debates.”

Mathews calls for a longer school day, allowing teachers to encourage students to “research issues, take different sides, and discuss them in a civil way. Good teachers could demonstrate the power of conceding points to your opponent.”

Former moderate Republican congressman Jim Leach, now chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, joined historian Jill Lepore this year on a nationwide tour to discuss the state of political discourse.

At one talk, Leach described incivility as a problem requiring everyone’s efforts: “The choice for leaders is whether to opt for unifying statesmanship or opportunistic partisanship. Likewise, the challenge for citizens is to determine whom to follow: those who seek unity by respecting diversity, or those who press debilitating cultural wars or extreme ideological agendas.”

Neblo, writing in the Boston Globe, conceded that even the most extreme partisans deserve to be heard.

“There is a place for face-to-face confrontation, and even angry protest . . . ,” he wrote. “Democracies need those citizens, because sometimes they are right, and the larger public needs to be jarred out of its complacency. The problem starts when what should be rare becomes routine, when disruptive protest becomes a tool of everyday politics.”

Merritt concurred: “Of course, people still say nasty things to one another when they disagree. Words hurt, and nastiness distorts meaning, so it’s harder for people to resolve differences when they have said uncivil things.

“The best way to address that is to help everyone learn how to communicate effectively, defuse tense situations, and reach consensus with people who hold opposing views. Incivility rarely wins the day for anyone.”

This story originally appeared in the September/October edition of Ohio State Alumni Magazine.