Reviving Civility

A few nights ago, I participated in a panel discussion devoted to the revival of civility, as part of the annual Spirit and Place Festival sponsored by IUPUI. The evening began with a soliloquy of sorts on the subject by former Congressman/Statesman Lee Hamilton, then segued to the panel. I’m not sure any of us had especially useful recommendations for how we might inject mutual respect into political conversations, or ensure that those discussions are based upon verifiable fact, but we tried.

Since I have no idea how Americans of good will might revive civility, or rescue it from the Trumpian depths of Twitter and media comments sections, I took a somewhat different approach to the subject, which I am sharing, below.


When I was asked to participate in this panel, my mind went back twenty years. I was then the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, and I had mounted a major campaign to promote civility and encourage more civil discourse about hot-button civil liberties issues. Several members objected. They let me know that they were upset–that they thought such an effort was inappropriate because they were convinced that an emphasis on civility somehow undermined, or was evidence of less than robust support for, Free Speech.

That misunderstanding is evidently shared by the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, the creators of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic websites, and participants in proliferating Facebook confrontations and Twitter wars. They defend their vitriol as “Free Speech;” and disparage and dismiss civility as “political correctness.”

They couldn’t be more wrong.

This nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion. They didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger bad ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and damaging–ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous than the bad ideas themselves.

But that’s where civility comes in.

If free speech is to achieve its purpose—if it is meant to facilitate a process in which citizens consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racist “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—make it impossible to have the kinds of genuine conversations and productive disagreements that the First Amendment is intended to foster.

Screaming invective across political or religious divides actually undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Absolutely not.

There are multiple reasons for the recent rise in incivility, but the anonymity and distance afforded by the internet and social media are clearly important contributors. As many of you know, I have a daily blog, and I’ve found it necessary to impose standards of conduct for commenters. Civil disagreements are encouraged; ad hominem attacks, personal nastiness and unrepentant bigotry are not welcome and will not be tolerated, not just because they are unpleasant and hurtful, but because people engaging in those behaviors derail the substantive and instructive disagreements that people with different perspectives need to explore if we are going to live and work together.

Responding to a Facebook argument or Twitter blast with an insult may make you feel better, but it doesn’t advance the conversation, and it certainly doesn’t count as participation in the marketplace of ideas.

Defending obnoxious and uncivil behavior as “Free Speech” is the ultimate hypocrisy.


  1. Nancy Papas,

    “Elections across the country last week show the public IS paying attention to the media and people like Sheila Kennedy. (Have you shared her blog with others?)

    There’s hope for America and the world.” [From yesterday’s post].”


  2. “If free speech is to achieve its purpose—if it is meant to facilitate a process in which citizens consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racist “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—make it impossible to have the kinds of genuine conversations and productive disagreements that the First Amendment is intended to foster.”

    “Defending obnoxious and uncivil behavior as “Free Speech” is the ultimate hypocrisy.”

    Listening to and actually HEARING the obnoxious and uncivil rants, invectives, “alternative facts”, threats, accusations, denials (as Trump’s acceptance and support of Putin’s denial of interfering in the 2016 election) and outright lies gives us valuable information; we know what their aims are and who to beware of. That is not the same as defending what they say; it isn’t even the same as believing what they say. Political lies and liars have always been with us but never to the degree we are subjected to today and never, to my recollection, have they been coming daily from the White House and fully supported by Congress. As I noted a few days ago; during an interview with the RNC Chairwoman on “Morning Joe”, when asked about Trump’s blatant lies and statements about actions he will take which are beyond his powers as president, Joe was informed that we must “translate what he says”. Hearing that response gives us understanding of how deep and how dangerous Trump’s abuse of freedom of speech is to all of us. He is an American speaking “American” as he calls it and is unstoppable…so far.

    Sad and frightening as it is to support; the ACLU is correct in protecting freedom of speech – it is not supporting the meaning of the words being spoken. It is up to us, as Americans, to “listen to learn, not listen to reply” as so aptly stated by a student to President Obama a few months ago during a panel discussion with a group of young people. She understands the true meaning of freedom of speech beyond the simple words of the founding fathers to the heart of their meaning.

    Knowledge is power; we cannot attain knowledge if we do not “listen to hear, not listen to reply”. That old adage “Talk is cheap.” has never been cheaper than it is today coming from the mouths of our elected leaders; LISTEN AND LEARN. Another old adage which is more valuable today than ever before; “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!” Today our enemies are our own government and hearing them is proof of their danger.

  3. It is one thing to be civil. It is something else to assume that hate speech can flow away like water on a duck’s back. You don’t have to respond to hate speech with more of the same, but to assume that a civil discussion is always called for is to assume that hate speech does not harm the person it is aimed at. That is easy to assume when the speech is not aimed directly at me, but the “targets” may not feel the same.

  4. Oh man I wish you had posted this before I saw a Facebook comment yesterday, written by a friend of a friend, and a woman and mother, rationalizing and even normalizing the alleged incidents of sexual assault of teens by Roy Moore when he was a prosecuting attorney in his early 30’s. In the 1980’s.

    I said some things that would probably be considered outside the norms of civil discourse. That’s not true. I totally lost it. But I didn’t use curse words and I didn’t call her any names. That’s progress, right?

    My head is still spinning at the gyrations the radical right wing (that’s not hyperbole – they’re WAY beyond just right wing) will go through to make every-thing rose-colored and taste like peaches and cream. When they want to. I tried to comprehend the reaction we’d see if Barrack Obama had ever been accused of so much as whistling at a white woman (RIP Emmit) and my head nearly exploded.

    I did the right thing. I deleted the comments (after I knew she’d seen them), blocked the commenter (we’ll never interact on FB again, good or bad) and I sent a note of apology to my friend (who said he found the whole exchange hilarious). In hindsight, I suppose the only real alternative approach for me and my Celtic temperament (sorry Celts, you ARE like that) was to just let it slide, knowing what I knew from past comments by the woman. But that’s really really hard for me.

    One would probably expect that moderates be the main proponents of civility in our political and social discourse because it’s moderates who always look for common ground – solutions to problems that aren’t too objectionable to either the left or the right, or contain aspects that appeal to each of them. I used to be in that camp – a good Chamber-of- Commerce-meeting-attending business executive who voted Democrat or Republican depending on the candidate and his or her views and policy history.

    But then I became radicalized. How? Mostly by doing absolutely nothing. All I did was maintain the same values, beliefs and convictions and then watched nearly half the nation (and world) careen off the rails into radical-right-wing la-la land. And now they view people like me as corporatist elites, socialists, and worst of all, threats to the holy 2nd amendment. But over the last two years, I will have to admit I have become far less tolerant of the RRW and their lies, no matter who spews them and where. I’m not the right guy to invite to a dinner party where one of the female guests blurted out that Obama just HAD to be the worst US president in history. This really happened. I didn’t let it pass and I haven’t had much interaction with that couple since, which is too bad as we were pretty good friends.

    So, I’ll have to leave it to others whose comportment is better suited to keeping it civil first and foremost, no matter how preposterous the position taken, lie told or repeated, etc etc. I’m simply not capable. Calling out the lies and lying liars who tell them is not only a favorite past-time for me, I see it as a public duty. And the reason isn’t because I might be able to change the mind or position of the person I’m arguing with. The reason is because I think I may be able to influence the views of some of the other people standing by and watching (known as “lurkers” on social media). And some of those lookers-on are young people……who are being fed poison every day. If they don’t see an alternative point of view (reality, actually) out there…then their values, minds and political positions will be influenced most by those who make the loudest noise most often.

    Not on my watch.


  5. Attempting civil dialog with blathering ideologues seems rather fruitless. People who reject evidence in favor of belief, offer little basis for compromise or solutions that don’t fit their belief system. I am beginning to think ridicule and derision may be the only way to deal with them. An example: Nazi demonstrators recently have been met with scorn and they have retreated to their hidey holes and maybe a few of them have decided being a part of something that widely ridiculed is not worth it. Just a thought.

  6. Peggy,

    “The best antidote for bad speech is good speech.”

    The ULTIMATE GOOD SPEECH ANTIDOTE must be potent enough to treat the likes of Charles Koch, if not it will surely be unsuccessful. If or when a faulty antidote is introduced it must be immediately taken off the market. It will do more harm than good. Unfortunately, at the moment, the pro-democracy forces have no vehicle to enforce this type of action.

  7. This Spirit in Place event on civility was another memorable one thanks to SHEILA and everyone on the panel.
    One of my favorite quotes is my own, of course. “I continue to work on my intolerance of intolerance.” When I get lazy at this job, I become more like the people I abhor. When I become aware of this, it motivates me to get back to work.

  8. The days of statesmanship espoused by Lee Hamilton are long gone. There are people much smarter than I am who are predicting decades of civil unrest as we deal with a corrupt socio-politico-economic system and an impotent press.

    We don’t have a democracy or representative republic.

    Without these things, there is no balance of power. Our corrupted government is becoming more and more oppressive with an emphasis on militarizing the police and massive surveillance.

    Civility is fun to talk about but not realistic.

  9. “Attempting civil dialog with blathering ideologues seems rather fruitless.”

    Geraldine; attempting civil dialog with these people is not only fruitless, it moves us DOWN to their level as they can never be brought up to a level of common sense, facts, awareness or understanding. Close your eyes and picture attempting to sit one-on-one with Trump and hold an intelligent conversation…but protect your private area of anatomy as you do this. All we can do logically is to continue to repeatedly speak the truth, report facts and results of research; not in response to them but directed to those who are capable of understanding. It is that old “talking to a brick wall” syndrome which is rampant in the White House and Congress today.

  10. Todd,

    “There are people much smarter than I am who are predicting decades of civil unrest….”

    “We don’t have a democracy or representative republic.”

    “Civility is fun to talk about but not realistic.”

    I agree with what you’re saying. But CIVILITY is the only thing that can MINIMIZE the damage from the civil unrest that you say we will encounter. We have no other choice than to keep trying for it, no matter how daunting the task. We’ve hit “rock bottom” with Trump, politically speaking that leaves no place to go except UPWARDS. We have a strong partner. She is called REALITY.

  11. How people debate is a matter of culture. Not to insult anyone but there are for instance the English, Asians, and Italians. Each has a fairly predictable style in interactions with others. None are right or wrong but the difference can be observed given the right number of samples.

    I consider successful celebrities to be style setters. As examples, two celebrities. Rush Limbaugh and lessor celebrities in his style, and Donald Trump. They have tainted American culture.

    Consider our own sort of celebrity, Sheila. She has affected culture to some degree in the opposite direction.

    There are those who respect Sheila and are inclined to emulate her style and there are those who choose to be affected by Rush and Trump. In other words a sort of latent culture among those two groups is reinforced by celebrity and emerges to the forefront.

    Segueing to a slightly different perspective: I consider President Obama a personal hero for many reasons not the least being his warm personality and diplomacy and intellect. However I understand how others could view the same person and interpret the same style as put on and condescending. He influenced me positively but could influence others negatively.

    It seems to me that somehow we need to reclaim a previous culture that considered emotional and rational separate parts of the human personality both with specific application and effective in different circumstances.

    We need to return to respecting political correctness for the useful tool that it is.

  12. Perhaps we all should take lessons from some of the laconic comedians of the past. Will Rogers exhibited a very sharp and scathing wit, especially toward politicians and politics he disagreed with. Yet, everyone loved him.

    That said, it behooves us all to try to fine irony and humor in every discourse. Roy Moore is a living, breathing script for stand-up comedy…and he deserves every bit of the punchlines.

    I recently discussed “beliefs” with a friend. I told him that when I write my columns or books, I try very hard to avoid a “belief”, but rather make comments and analyses based of facts and truth. As a former science educator, using critical thinking coupled to the scientific method, was the essence of understanding our world. Sure, we all get emotionally involved, but we must revert to critical, cold-eyed thinking and analysis.

    We are not all going to be “steely-eyed missile men”, but perhaps we should all take some time to channel our inner comic and show how irony can replace sarcasm, wit to replace anger and charm to replace rancor.

  13. As a famous jurist once noted, the right to free speech does not include the right to yell Fire! in a crowded theater. It does today (see Trump) and doesn’t even have to pass through the sieve of truth and reason. So what to do? Scream and holler? No, though it’s a tempting response.

    I think we have to keep our cool and separate the issues from the speakers. Thus we need not insult the speaker even if the speaker has insulted us; we can show our class and devotion to debate of the issues by robustly framing and discussing the issues at hand and ignoring, for instance, the physical characteristics of our opponents (Kim is short and fat per Trump and other such diversionary chatter having nothing to do with the real issues up for debate like, for instance, the prospect of a North Korean atom-tipped missile dropped on Silicon Valley).

    The key to winning the debate is not insult and putdown but rather preparation for the substantive issues up for discussion. I used to tell my clients that I didn’t win or lose cases in the courtroom but rather in the law library. If my assessment is accurate, then as expanded let us use our time and energy not in anger and frustration but rather in preparation for the debate with insulting kooks who substitute name-calling for cogent discussion of the issues at hand.

    Hard to do? Sure, but possible if we keep our cool, reject our opponents’ framing, reframe the approach to the issue or issues, and relentlessly pursue a substantive discussion of the issue or issues up for discussion. We can save our screaming and hollering for the Ayn Rand and Koch libertarians and Ayn Rand Republicans who are on the verge of giving corporate America “tax relief” in the trillions at our expense and that of our great grandchildren. That, I concede, is worth screaming about. GRRRRR!

  14. bring the words, be self important, do the deeds to undermine civility,and create whet we see today.. never did like politics that undermine the very freedoms we died for. words somethimes whitewashes the deeds,and some times they dont..

  15. Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. By Marcus Aurelius Roman Emperor) Written year 167 AD.

    As you can read above a lack of civility predates the modern era.

    Glenn Greenwald has a good piece and I quote him: “There is ample talk, particularly of late, about the threats posed by social media to democracy and political discourse. Yet one of the primary ways that democracy is degraded by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is, for obvious reasons, typically ignored in such discussions: the way they are used by American journalists to endorse factually false claims that quickly spread and become viral, entrenched into narratives, and thus, can never be adequately corrected”.

    “The design of Twitter, where many political journalists spend their time, is in large part responsible for this damage. Its space constraints mean that tweeted headlines or tiny summaries of reporting are often assumed to be true with no critical analysis of their accuracy and are easily spread”.

  16. I am eternally grateful to the friend who directed me to Sheila Kennedy! It is comforting to know there are many others who are deeply concerned about the attempt to destroy our nation. Those of us who resist this corruption are obviously not part of that hard core Trump voting base that I refer to as “the sheeple” – thank goodness!

    I am eternally grateful to my parents for encourage a thirst for knowledge, a curiosity about the world and the ability to question fallacies and deliberate deflections – to separate fact from fiction.

    One obvious way to counteract our political dilemna is to motivate voters. Cultivating the grass roots voter is vital, especially the younger ones! Establish genuine issues: economy, healthcare, education, jobs, whatever – then get to work owning and selling those issues. Claim them as a MODERATE party. Go after the women’s vote and get women involved! There are plenty of people in our gerrymandered precincts who don’t vote because they think their vote won’t make any difference – how many times have we heard that old canard? It is troubling how low voter turnout is, especially for midterm elections.

    Voting is not an option – it is a privilege and a duty!

    “ONE” vote DOES make a difference if enough ONES cast a ballot. Think about the Electoral College that elected Trump, in spite of a 3,00,000 popular vote deficit – just a few more votes in several states would have made a difference!

    Derision and ridicule are wonderful tools for demolishing the pompous, self centered and mis-educated. No one likes to be told “He has no clothes.” Trevor Noah, Colbert, Jon Stewart are masters at the art. Do you like being the butt of a joke?

    As a P.S. I am also grateful for Virginia and all those voter last Tuesday who said NO to one particular turkey- to repeat myself, I am looking forward to that turkey on Thanksgiving!

  17. What we have now is akin to having two civil war era skirmish lines firing on each other from opposite sides of an open field. Thoughts and invective from either side go whizzing by the participants like Minie Balls with some striking home and requiring a similar response from those that are hit by things they vehemently don’t agree with. For the leaders of either side to venture forth into the middle of the open field and shake hands and agree to a cease fire and work together is impossible when those that are continuing to fire off vicious thoughts and invective won’t stop in their war to top each other in terms of hatred and bigotry toward each other.

    This is the only thing I can compare it to and I’ve tried to come up with other metaphors for it but given the discussions, that they can be called that, that I’ve had with old friends who are immovable in their support for Trump and their full tilt embracing of far right/alt-right dogma, this is the best one I can come up with. It’s a real shame for all sorts of reasons many of which transcended political views that go to the heart of friendships that I’ve had with people since we were kids. They didn’t used to be this way but they are now. The very deep common ground we’ve had amongst ourselves for so long is under direct attack because of what is happening to this country.

    In essence, we’re slowly but surely ripping this country to pieces and are helped along by those who want to divide us in order to conquer us and those could be folks like the Mercer’s, the Steve Bannon’s, the Richard Spencer’s, Breitbart and Faux News (which are basically TV-based PACs, and of course our dear friends in the Russian FSB. All of this may end up topping the Vietnam War has the greatest internal threat to the cohesion of this nation since the American Civil War which is hard to gauge cents were right in the middle of it right now.

  18. Thank you Sheila for this important lesson on free speech. It’s not one that was shared in constitutional law classes unfortunately.

    It has been shared in legislative chambers where many members do not cross certain ‘red lines’ because there will always be some issues on which opposing parties can and will agree and will need each other. Government can’t work without such agreements as Washington and the rest of the country are beginning to learn.

    If we practice an eye-for-an-eye retribution for every perceived difference of opinion, everyone will end up blind. America needs something other than a prescription where everyone loses.

  19. Trump’s asinine behavior and comments on this Asian trip, supporting Putin then “walking back” his support. Why is this life-threatening behavior allowed to continue? Does Congress not understand they will not survive a nuclear attack simply because the support Trump? Old movie titles come to mind; “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”, “Wag The Dog”, and Trump’s behavior imitates that of Peter Sellers in “The Pink Panther”; but…we can’t sit with our cold drinks, box of popcorn and laugh at his antics. He is not a civilized person; he is not a mentally stable person yet he is ruining this country and endangering all of us. There has been no civility or intelligent information from the White House since January 20, 2017. The president, the current administration and both parties of the entire Congress should be held libel and put before a panel of judges (IF there are any to be trusted) for a Nurenburg Trial. We continue civilly and respectfully waiting for them to force themselves to follow the rule of law and the Constitution; they will NOT try and convict themselves.

    “We have met the enemy and he is us!” That famous line from a years old cartoon describes the situation.

  20. Tom,

    “What we have now is akin to having two civil war era skirmish lines firing on each other from opposite sides of an open field.”

    “This is the only thing I can compare it to and I’ve tried to come up with other metaphors for it..”

    Try this metaphor: The Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia. I believe it was 1864. As I remember, the Union forces lost 4,000 men in less than an hour when their TUNNELING MANEUVER collapsed.

    Many times, the best laid plans do just the opposite. They BLOWBACK, BACKFIRE or in this instance COLLAPSE.

  21. Tom,

    I’ve had the benefit of the CRATER metaphor in the back of my mind for almost 60 years. I was briefly stationed at Ft. Lee, Virginia when I was on active duty with the Army in 1960. Ft. Lee is right next to the Civil War Battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia.

  22. From what it looks like to me, Trump/Pence/Bannon have purchased a defective TUNNEL. At this point in time, their only recourse is to sue themselves.

  23. “This nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion. They didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger bad ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and damaging–ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous than the bad ideas themselves.”

    A few weeks ago I ordered and received a copy of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” (17 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President); didn’t have the mental fortitude to pick it up till now, somehow connecting it to “Reviving Civility” and freedom of speech. Suppose there had been a Constitutional rule or law to forbid Trump from his unbalanced Tweets and threats being made before the entire world; we would have no way of knowing how truly dangerous he is and his intent to use the power of his position. Robert J. Lofton, M.D. who authored the Forward to the book refers to these times as “the malignant normality that surrounds us.” He quotes a line from Theodore Roethke; “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Often believed to refer to beginning to see ourselves as we are; I believe it extends beyond ourselves and that in this “dark time” we are beginning to see the government as it has become because we carried “political correctness” too far. Congress became what it is today through a slow process of “adaptation to evil” (another Dr. Lofton quote); not by allowing freedom of speech as it is protected in the Constitution, but by allowing those behind the words to continue their actions behind the words. Trump’s own words condemn him but we have been told to “translate what he says” and earlier not to pay attention to his words but to look into his heart – he speaks and Tweets from his heart, protected by his freedom of speech, uncivil as it is.

    Comparing Trump to Adolph Hitler is appropriate but we seem to have forgotten that it was Germany accepting Hitlers words, believing them or not, and allowing him and his minions to gain strength by continuing their actions behind the words. The Holocaust did not begin with Hitler’s first rousing speech; it grew exponentially with each ensuing speech and growing crowds cheering him on. We, on this blog, often refer to the Civil War of our past and the cold Civil War of today, even speaking of the possible Civil War in our future, and as we make use of our freedom of speech, Trump gathers strength each day he is allowed to continue.

    “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” This is our dark time; how do we stop “the malignant normality that surrounds us” with words whether they be civil or politically correct?

    I am afraid; and my fear grows daily.

  24. I feel it’s graduation time for my two and a half year course in CIVILITY taught by the best. It takes an inordinate amount of time to graduate if you have been a defense attorney for most of your professional career. There, you don’t get paid to be civil.

  25. Like so many others, I am heartbroken and, yes, even frightened, of the dialogue I read and hear every day. It has become difficult to even have a reasonable discussion with some I have known for years. For some, I am an elitist. For others I am one of “those damn hippies from California”; I now live in the Midwest.
    One of the best conversations I have had on political differences was in an tiny town in the mountains of Virginia, where I stopped to purchase fuel on my drive from Wisconsin to Norfolk, a short visit to see my Navy son and family. We not only spoke of politics, we actually politely agreed we had different perspectives and life experiences!
    It gave me hope, something I have since lost.
    I am an immigrant. And I am frightened by the anger and malevolent voices I have encountered. Neither my speech nor my “appearance” makes my birthplace apparent ; I am often asked why I have a name from the “old country”…answer is “because I am from the old country”.
    I wish I had answers. Also, that I could be cleare, more coherent in my comment!

  26. A few months ago, the newly-elected mayor of Indianapolis (a Democrat) gave a speech to members of the Indianapolis Rotary Club. Not one negative thing was said about Republicans. A month later, the newly-elected governor of Indiana (a Republican) gave a speech to the same Rotary Club and said nothing negative about Democrats.

    Today’s Sheila Kennedy blog concentrates on civility and restraint. What’s happening? The national Republicans are not part of this movement. A couple of weeks ago, Secretary of State Tillerson called Trump a moron. He shouldn’t have done that. Trump is not smart enough to be a moron.

    If the Republicans clean up their act, who’s going to say rotten things about the Democrats?

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