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Posted at 6:02 AM ET, 02/22/2011

Does America really need a civility institute?

By Stephen Stromberg

The University of Arizona is establishing the National Institute for Civil Discourse, university officials announced Monday. Inspired by the debate that surrounded the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) last month, the institute, The Post reports, is supposed to be "a nonpartisan center for debate, research, education and policy about civility in public discourse," and a range of Washington luminaries will serve on the institute's board. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, for example, will serve as co-chairs.

The institute's good-natured director, Brent Milward, calls himself an "optimistic realist" about the chances of affecting the tone of the national debate. But this sounds like so many things related to Washington: Good intentions mixed with ready cash, an instinct that a reasonable response to any event is establishing some new organization, and notables' desire to seem concerned.

Civility isn't that hard. A fundamental rule in good opinion journalism is: Always try to consider an opponent's argument honestly, and accept that there can be principled takes on both sides of most debates, even if one seems unhinged to you. Mistrust people who are too sure of what they're saying -- even if you're one of them. And, while you're doing all this, try not to compare your opponents to Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot unless they literally are Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot, respectively.

Many in opinion journalism and politics ignore these rules. But that's because they often don't have much incentive to follow the rules -- not because the guidelines rely on sophisticated insights. Milward admits that, ultimately, nasty rhetoric will wane when it finally becomes less effective.

In that vein, the most useful thing the University of Arizona could do is identify instances of civility and incivility in public debate, making itself the Politifact for politeness. With some publicity, that might slightly tweak the incentives for those participating in national debates. Milward says the institute is thinking of doing something like that eventually.

But first it's going to convene conferences, offer workshops and connect different groups that work on civil engagement. Groups, presumably, such as the Institute for Civility in Government, which runs "workshops" in which participants "learn what civility makes possible, and what incivility prevents." It's a four-step program:

Session 1 - Know thyself/differences are enriching
Session 2 - Listen with your heart, mind and strength
Session 3 - Help comes from unexpected places
Session 4 - One is powerful, but numbers count

Call me a pessimistic realist, but I'm not sure more workshops are really going to help.

By Stephen Stromberg  | February 22, 2011; 6:02 AM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Comments

Well, then it can start working right now! I have seen some pretty nasty and vile signs carried by the pro union protesters in Wisconsin.

Or does this "civility center" not look at the language if it used by liberals?

Posted by: heathergreeneyes | February 22, 2011 6:34 AM | Report abuse

Nothing harmful could come from such an effort. Everyone like Bill Clinton, so this is where he shines.

Posted by: dangreen3 | February 22, 2011 8:25 AM | Report abuse

Blah, blah. Once again, this "reporter" fits to a tee what Winston Churchill said about reporters. "They are generally semi-illiterate cretins hired to fill spaces between advertisements"

Posted by: nomobarry | February 22, 2011 9:19 AM | Report abuse

The United States has not benefitted from the corporate owned "mainstream" media driving a divisive agenda that pits American citizens against each other and against government. This nation needs more real journalism, citizen journalism committed to the public interest. I unplugged the signal over a year ago.

Peter Hebert

Posted by: Peter_Hebert | February 22, 2011 9:28 AM | Report abuse

hahaha! Sooo stupid!Didnt we learn this in kindergarten? Whos paying for this?

Posted by: allsides | February 22, 2011 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Give them a break Stephen. It's just a way to net some grant money.

Posted by: wonderingstevie | February 22, 2011 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm starting a civility institution in my basement. Please forward $15 billion within the next 24 hours, taxpayers. I'll make sure you get your money's worth.

Posted by: ecartr5 | February 22, 2011 10:37 AM | Report abuse

"The problem of incivility in the operations of governing" deserves serious study.

A suggested place to begin is to try to find the best questions to ask.

"An Interdisciplinary Approach to Studying Civil Discourse in the U.S."

Beginning list of qwuesitons:

How much does "critical thinking" figure into the discussion?

How much does “learning the tools-to-recognize-propaganda" have to do with civil discourse?

How much does being "scientifically literate, or not", affect civil discourse?

How much does one’s "understanding of the Constitution" affect civil discourse?

How much does "corporate-controlled journalism" affect civil discourse?

How does getting people to-- "act-in-a-manner-against-their own-best-interests, play into the discussion?"

How much do "labels" (that supposedly refer to one’s epistemological bias) affect civil discourse?

How much does "empathy, or lack of it", have to do with civil discourse?

How much does the belief in the "effectiveness of punishment" have to do with it?

How much does the study of "authoritarians vs. non-authoritarians" have to do with civil discourse?

Let's begin by trying to ask probing questions that might start to shed some light, and overall understanding, of our culture. I think social scientists need to take this as their cue to apply academia to the problem in a committed manner.

Posted by: HoffmanQRC | February 22, 2011 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I could care who starts it, runs it, or funds it. The very idea of a formal entity deciding what is, and what is not, civil, is an affront to the very concept of free thought. Is is and will be, one way or the other, censorship. It is or will be, the institutionalization of political correctness. Our entire history of law has codified into law unacceptable behavior and called the unacceptable crimes against society. We don't need a shadow police state or untethered legislature and those who seek such - and they are many control freaks, need to be excoriated and sent packing to some other nation where such controls on mankind disguised as "proper behavior" are in use every day use.

Let us know how their gulags turn out, because no entity creates rules for civility with creating a process for punishing those they consider uncivil. Shame on all involved.

Posted by: DonL1 | February 22, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Re-education classes will do great to stop the incivility rampant in U. S. society! The elite class should always remain above the proles and keep them under foot.

The Arabs have it all wrong; your rulers should remain your masters. All hail Obama and our enlightened rulers in Congress & the Supreme Court.

I heart you Big Brother!

Posted by: adamnescot1 | February 22, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

I could care who starts it, runs it, or funds it. The very idea of a formal entity deciding what is, and what is not, civil, is an affront to the very concept of free thought. Is is and will be, one way or the other, censorship. It is or will be, the institutionalization of political correctness. Our entire history of law has codified into law unacceptable behavior and called the unacceptable crimes against society. We don't need a shadow police state or untethered legislature and those who seek such - and they are many control freaks, need to be excoriated and sent packing to some other nation where such controls on mankind disguised as "proper behavior" are in use every day use.

Let us know how their gulags turn out, because no entity creates rules for civility with creating a process for punishing those they consider uncivil. Shame on all involved.

Posted by: DonL1 | February 22, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Of course, chasing God from the public square and substitution the most self-centered corrupt and crass personal behavior had nothing to do with incivility.
Elitism has a conseqence -they'll just never understand.

Posted by: DonL1 | February 22, 2011 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Civility? You must be kidding. It's another attempt to moderate silence free speech and thought. "Everyone loves Bill Clinton"?? You mean the adulterer and murderer of Waco Clinton? Hateful speech will occur, and there's no excuse for it. However, the true facts of a situation have never really been a factor in the truth. Take a look at what's happening with the accused murder of Judge Roll and others and the attempted murder of Congresswoman Giffords. Once again, the facts are being distorted to support anti-gun legislation. The fact of the matter is, it's a matter of control, and it's not of guns. It's a situation wherein those in power do not trust them who put them in power. Time for...lawyers.

Posted by: thewizardofaz1 | February 22, 2011 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Great.
Just another educational money pit.
Blah... Blah... Blah...

Universities can do anything - if you continuously give them money to "study" it.

Global warming anyone?

Posted by: Zexufang1 | February 22, 2011 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I think this is just more LIBERAL bullcrap.

Posted by: cfbrandon69gmailcom | February 22, 2011 12:46 PM | Report abuse

So the truth does hurt doesn't it Washington post. A LIBERAL commie paper.

Posted by: cfbrandon69gmailcom | February 22, 2011 12:47 PM | Report abuse

No, we don't need an institute. All anyone needs to know is that their right to swing their fist ends where another persons literal nose begings.

Posted by: TJW1 | February 22, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Ridiculous. The shooting of Giffords had NOTHING to do with civility. That was made up by the formerly mainstream media to try to blame and silence those who disagreed with their political position. And Bill Clinton as honorary chair? "Put some ice on that" Bill Clinton. You can't be serious. What a laugh these people are. We have a HUGE problem with mediocre leaders and it going to kill us unless with throw them out.

Posted by: lavistabb | February 22, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse

As long as civil discourse does not become a code word for government censorship of "free speech", I have no problem with the U. of Arizona's efforts.
My problem? It smacks of Orwellian double-speak. Who becomes arbiter of uncivil discourse? The federal nanny state? A presidentially appointed commission? Another CZAR?
Come to think of it, it is a ridiculous posturing gesture by the U of AZ, but they have every right to do it.

Posted by: jay_thompson | February 22, 2011 2:27 PM | Report abuse

I believe there is a place for the new Arizona-based Institute for Civility as long as part of its mission is to educate and create more dialogue and awareness about the meaning of civility. It certainly means different things to different people. Looking at the flourish of rudeness that is so common in government, schools, business and community, begs for at forum where there can be open and thoughtful debate on a set of standards for how we treat one another. If we can agree with the statement that “your right to extend your arm ends at the tip of my nose”, then surely there can be accepted behaviors that help ensure we do not trample on the feelings and comfort of others with whom we interact. Manners and etiquette have evolved over time but there is a place for social graces that guide the nature and quality of our relationships. This is hardly being taught in at home, in schools or in the community so we have a CIVILITY GAP or disconnect between the knowledge and practice of what it means to be respectful, kind and considerate in our behavior. There is always room to learn and grow. The Institute is not a bad idea as long as it does not become a forum for posturing or pomposity. I do believe we need more “curbside” civility conversations that involve children and everyday people who engage in a process of discovery. The challenge is finding the right civility bandwidth to get the message out effectively. What do you think is a good way to create awareness and have thoughtful discussion around civility?

Posted by: CafeCivility | February 28, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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