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Expert Works to Calm Rage

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Activists against health care reform shout at an August 2009 town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Jim Moran in Reston, Va.

Heckling the president during a speech at a joint session of Congress. An f-bomb flying on the Senate floor. Boiling rage at town halls across the country. 

Canít we all just get along? Well, no, probably not. But champions of civility in public life say thatís not the point. 

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) on Saturday has led to a collective examination of the increasingly heated rhetoric in and around politics. And one expert on the topic says conflict is inevitable ó but how we express it must change.

Cassandra Dahnke is the co-founder of the Institute for Civility in Government, a Houston-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes nicer, more productive discourse in politics. The institute offers civility training on college campuses in sessions that have included Members of Congress, including Texas Reps. Kevin Brady (R), Gene Green (D) and Kay Granger (R).

Dahnke on Monday talked to Roll Call about why civility must be taught, how words lead to actions and how nastiness might be eliminated from our discourse. An edited transcript follows. 

How do you define civility in public discourse? 

We define civility as claiming and caring for oneís own identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone elseís in the process. 

Itís not about eliminating differences. We are not the Institute for Consensus in Government ó differences are enriching, but you need to approach them that way, not as a problem. People see civility as weakness ó that you donít stand for anything. Weíre not asking people to give up what they believe. 

Why is basic politeness so difficult to achieve? 

Our society has lost a basic skill set that has not been taught or fostered the way it used to be. I donít think I wear rose-colored glasses about the past, but that has changed. 

Civility takes a great deal of intentionality. Civility is hard work, but it is worth it.

Why focus on incivility in government, when it seems to be a part of the culture everywhere ó the media, entertainment, etc.? 

First, there is a lot at stake: If we donít protect it everywhere, there might come a day where we donít find it anywhere. And government sets a tone, and itís something weíre all a part of. 

Youíve talked about verbal civility. At what point does incivility become violence?

Words are formative, whether for good or for ill. We are shaped by words when we speak them and when we hear them. We need to be mindful of that.

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