SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

An academic mission of mercy confronts the "take-no-prisoners" incivility that is scorching our culture

Published January 8, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Civility" and "reconciliation," it seems, are all the rage as America enters the new year. Political bombthrowers like re-elected House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the curmugeonly head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, R-N.C., spoke in such terms at the opening of Congress yesterday. President Clinton, in a talk with church leaders Monday, appealed to them for help in "reconciling" the divisions in this country. Academics and authors have been pondering the need to restore "decency," especially to political discourse.

We chatted with one of the leading standard-bearers of the new tolerance, University of Pennsylvania president Judith Rodin, the moving force behind the recently-created Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community. The commission, which held its first meeting last month, intends to "explore the explosion of incivility in American and around the world, and to find ways to think differently and more creatively about social and political questions."

You liken America's culture wars to a "full-fledged nuclear conflict in which no prisoners are being taken." Is it really that bad?

I think in some quarters it is that bad. I think we really are fighting to disenfranchise other people again. People really do feel more threatened than they have for a very long time, across multiple stratas of society. There are under-represented minorities who clearly feel more threatened than they have in a long time. People in high income brackets also feel frightened. They are building walls and hiring private guards. This is not a happy moment for many people in our society.

You cite polls that say 89 percent of Americans think incivility is a serious problem and 78 percent think the problem has gotten worse over the past decade. If people are so fed up with incivility then why do they tune into radio and talk shows -- arenas of incivility --in droves?

I think people listen to those programs for entertainment. Discourse has gotten as degraded as it has in order to entertain, to shock and hold a market share. We are all human and we get titillated, shocked and upset at the same time. Yes, you could refuse to listen, but there is something very evocative about all of it -- saying, "Isn't that terrible," after listening to three hours of it.

You cite the "largely invisible development of a culture of unrestrained rage, sadism and insult on the Internet." By trying to be arbiters of civility aren't you getting into sticky free speech territory?

What the commission wants to do is to encourage society to have more reasoned discourse, not to be the arbiters of civility, and certainly not to suppress free expression. The worry of the commission is that this incivility is a sign that we have stopped listening to one another. The Internet presents an extraordinary opportunity for spreading access to ideas and issues that many people otherwise would not be exposed to. I view the advent of television and the Internet as being the most monumental social changes in the last 40 or 50 years.

It also has some significant problems, one of which is this stepping up of the level of the rhetoric. My 14-year old son surfs the Internet and it terrifies me -- as I think many people must be -- to think what he is exposed to. I don't think the answer is suppression, but I think we need to raise peoples' consciousness about how we are hurting one another.

You have said that while incivility is nothing new in this country, the consequences have become more dangerous. Why?

There is a real dominance of marketplace values in politics now, a winner-take-all ethic. You gotta win in the debate. We've always had marketplace values in business, and that's okay, but we now have it in politics. That's made for a decline in faith in important civic institutions. We don't believe in our leaders as strongly, and that decreases the civility of the discourse. We also have many formerly unrepresented voices in society who are shouting to be heard, and other segments who are shouting to protect their turf. So we are shouting at each other without hearing one another. We're no longer trying to exchange ideas or even persuade one another of some critical points, we're just trying to drown the other person out.

Universities are supposed to be removed from all of this.

Universities are places where these issues are also being played out. We're just a microcosm of the broader society and we have a lot of work to do even on ourselves. I also think universities, with expertise in facilitating reasoned discourse, should exercise a leadership role in dealing with these tough issues. They also have an important role in building community, both within their discipline inside the university, and also in the communities at large.

Some would say such notions of leadership are elitist.

Leadership is a complicated issue. We have democratic values, but we also have mass markets; we have a culture that emphasizes simplicity, and all of that. The question is what is the right balance between authority, on the one hand, and its constituency groups on the other. Between expertise, on the one hand, and mass democracy on the other. How much voice and access should every individual have, as opposed to working through elected leaders or chosen leaders?

We seem to be going around our elected leaders, or not bothering to vote, or trying to have our voices heard in a variety of other ways. How is that going to play out in our society? How is that going to influence our sense of our leadership in the future? Right now, people mistrust their leaders. By running for office, you are somehow saying that you are not to be trusted. When our democracy was established, the view was that we would choose those people who we most admired and trusted to speak for us. We don't feel that way anymore.

We're also wrestling with the issue of expertise: How can expertise be brought to bear on complex problems without making people who aren't experts feel disenfranchised from the debate? I don't have a good answer to that -- though it is important to know that we are wrestling with it!

Concretely, how will your commission contribute to solutions?

We've gathered thinkers from a variety of perspectives, from various walks of political life, from the entertainment industry and media. We also intend to put together a compendium of all of the community building activities that have been going on around the world. We are going to have a Web site and really get some interaction among people, so it isn't just "ivory tower." We're going to identify emerging leaders and get them engaged. [Former Clinton adviser] Paul Begala has said that he would recommend to anyone running for office to put away $1,000 for a legal defense fund. That is a terrible thing to feel, if it's true. What we want to do is to engage young people in the commission so they feel encouraged by the future, not discouraged.

You talk of a three-to five-year project. Given the way you say things are going, do we have that amount of time?

People look for over-simplified answers, which is just another symptom of the problem. The answer isn't going to come from prescriptive, band-aid solutions; it isn't going to come from sermonizing about moral decline, or "Isn't this terrible that we have lost our values." It is going to come from really hard, engaged thinking over a protracted period of time. That is what creativity is about: breaking down some of your own mindsets, getting people together from a variety of perspectives who really are willing to engage in the hard work of brainstorming, to come up with some creative, new ways of thinking about this.

How uncivil are we, and what can be done about it? Join the conversation in Table Talk.

Quote of the day

Malaria returns

We have no blanket, no medicine, and not enough food to eat. How can I afford a mosquito net? I spend my life being sick, so I have no time to earn money to get a mosquito net.

-- Soy Phal, 31, a Cambodian villager feverish with malaria. Her husband died of the disease three years ago. (From "Malaria Makes a Comeback, Deadlier Than Ever," in Wednesday's New York Times)

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------