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Group Aims To Restore Civililty To San Diego's Civic Dialogue

February 19, 2013 1:14 p.m.


Carl Luna, Political Science Professor Mesa College

Martha Barnette, Co-host of Public Radio's A Way With Words

Related Story: Group Aims To Restore Civililty To San Diego's Civic Dialogue


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Civility is defined in the dictionary as formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech. But in terms of public dialogue, it also means extending some respect toward others even if you don't agree with them. A group of San Diego educators, community leader, and public officials found civility sadly lacking in today's politics. So they initiated a conference last year aimed at restoring respect and civility in civic dialogue. Based on what happened during last year's nasty political races, one conference was not enough. So the group is trying again this year with the second annual conference on restoring civility to civic dialogue. I'd like to welcome my guests, Carl Luna, political science professor at Mesa College, and moderator of the conference. Welcome back.

LUNA: Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Martha Barnett is cohost of public radio's a way with word, she'll be a panelist at the civility conference. It's good to see you.

BARNETT: Great to see you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Carl, perhaps it's not fair to say that we needed a second conference because of that nasty political election. But tell us about what kinds of discussing took place last year to kick this movement off.

LUNA: What we've been looking at is a general rise in a nasty tenure in American politics. At the national level, the local level, you see it in political ads. It's defined us up into hostile camp, we demonize each other, and once you start to use that language, it's Hart to say let's meet in the middle and compromise. If I've called you the devil, and you've called me the devil, we shouldn't be compromising with each other. So we had a very good reception, we had a very good panel, and it led to the idea that we should make this an ongoing process just too keep San Diegans aware that there is something else we could have. We can do better than we're currently doing. Civility is not just being polite, it is trying to maintain a civil community. If you don't do that, are the opposite, incivility, it's barbarism. You break apart.

CAVANAUGH: Who's your keynote speakinger this year?

LUNA: Eugene Washington.

CAVANAUGH: And I think a lot of us have read his articles. Is he a strong champion of the kind of dialogue you're talking about?

LUNA: He has been on the firing line in Washington watching just how uncivil things have become over the last decade. The George W. Bush presidency, it's accelerated in Barack Obama's presidency, it's led to political gridlock. And he has a ringside seat to the breakdown of communication in Washington.

CAVANAUGH: You told us to the opposite of civility devolves into barbarism. Tell us more about this concept of civility that you would like to see reemerge in public dialogue. Why is it important?

LUNA: Civility doesn't mean you hold hands and sing Kumbaya. It means that in a respectful and forceful way, we can go through our differences and try to reach some deliberation to reach decisions for the entire community. We can vigorously disagree, but if we the people are governing America, we must concede that everybody is looking out for the best interests of America. John Kennedy said it best 50 years ago. Both parties want to do what's best for America. The question is how you do it. So once you assume and accept that we're all looking for a common good. We can disagree vigorously with each other but try to reach common ground.

CAVANAUGH: Martha, when I just asked that question to Carl, I say reemerge. Is that really true? Were our public meetings and discussions of issues in the past conducted in a more civil way?

BARNETT: Well, I don't think that there was ever any real golden age where we didn't speak forcefully and have disagreements and we weren't snarky and sarcastic. But if you go back to the etymology, as you know I would do.

BARNETT: Civility, it goes back to the idea of the art of government. And all these words from Latin then have to do with civics and citizen and city, and the fact that we all have a responsibility to each other. And if you look at the art of rhetoric in ancient Rome, for example, you don't want to make an ad homonym attack because that was a logical fallacy.

CAVANAUGH: Now, is there a consensus on what it means to be civil in public discourse, in politics?

LUNA: That's one of the reasons why we're doing these events and trying to discuss this and work this out, because there are different views of civility. Should reject the notion of pushing civility precisely because they see it as a sign of weakness, that it means caving into the other side. We're trying to argue means respectfully and effectively presenting your arguments to reach a common decision. So we've got principles we're advancing. On our website, we're talking about the ideas that true civil dialogue involves discussion, deliberation, decision. Try to solve problems not disrespect, disparagement, and denying. It's not enough just to be snarky. And one of the problems we have with AM talk radio, blogses, it's easy to get the cheap shot in. It attracts attention, but it doesn't help us reach real solutions to real important issues we have. There are some indications from political scientists when you look at political polarization, we're as polarized as we've been since just after the civil war. We are in an uncivil war of rhetoric.

CAVANAUGH: And Martha, your familiarity with words must lead you to the idea of guideline the. If you were to make any guideline, what would be some in terms of civility in civil discourse?

BARNETT: Well, I think that certainly we have to recognize how powerful words are. They can divide us, they can unite us, they can celebrate, they can demean. One thing that I keep coming back to when I'm looking at language in general, is that -- I like to think of language as clothing. You wouldn't wear a tuxedo to a beach party, and you wouldn't wear a bikini to a job interview. And there are certain registers that you should use at different points. And again to, come back to the idea of civility and citizenship, if you're trying to advance the public dialogue, then I think there's something to be said for being a little bit more elevated, dressing your language a little more formally, and if you disagree with somebody, disagree with them. And if someone has offended you, let them know, but there's a civil way to do that that advances the discussion.

CAVANAUGH: Carl, on the civility conference website, the 2012 complain is called one of the nastiest, least civil in modern times. Can you give examples?

LUNA: If you look at the blogosphere, and the language that's constantly being used, in 2012, we had a choice between a neofascist Mitt Romney, and a communist/socialist Barack Obama. Socialism has meaning. It means government ownership and the means of production, and outside of the government support for the auto industry, I haven't seen a whole lot of socialist takeover, and he's not a communist which is totalitarian. You've got a choice between a fascist or a socialist for president of the United States, that's when you should be staging a revolution!

LUNA: If you don't mean that sort of rhetoric, shut up already because you're getting me all nervous and upset!

CAVANAUGH: Does some of that come from people just don't understand what it is they're talking about when these use these epithets against people?

BARNETT: Absolutely! I think it's a important of either not knowing or resorting to shorthand. Yes.

LUNA: And by shut up already, I mean respectfully please stop causing so much trouble in American society.

BARNETT: And the fact is that people in advertising and political consultants get paid big bucks to tweak the nuances of those words. Tax cut is different from tax relief. We're talking about the same item there. But is it relief in that it takes away something that isn't be there or is it just a tax cut?

CAVANAUGH: And that artful use of language meant to, I guess, deceive or at least sort of obscure your real meaning, does that come under the heading of civil dialogue?

BARNETT: Well, I think when you start to adopt those things and use them without even thinking about it, as Carl was saying, fascist or communist, socialist, all of those words, they seep into the public dialogue, and then people do accept them without thinking.

CAVANAUGH: Is there a connection between being respectful of one's opponent and telling the truth?

BARNETT: Respectful of one's opponent and telling the truth. Well, I think you can do both, certainly. But it comes back to this idea of remembering that we're all citizens in this together, we're all looking for a common goal, and if you're really serious about the business of public dialogue, then you're going to do that.

CAVANAUGH: I get the feeling, Carl, from some of the subtext of what you're saying here is that if we could engage in discourse that allowed people time to get out what they wanted to say and allowed people the ability not to be dramatic all the time, that perhaps we could in our conversations get closer to the real meaning of things than we are right now. ; is that right?

LUNA: Well, that's very true, when it comes to the actual process of dialogue. Dialogue itself, working things out, is not all that glamorous, sexy, and exciting. The fight is the exciting thing. The loaded dialogue. How many fights have people have with people they loved because they used that 1 word that triggers 30 years of baggage that comes with it?

BARNETT: Or they just have them on twitter! 140 characters or les!

LUNA: So with our modern media, where you're trying to get attention, people are going to get attention by using uncivil flashing if you will to get attention from them. That doesn't lead to adult dialogue. And it really is time we need to be more adult about dealing with our problems and not just trying to be the teenaged flash.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know I'm speaking with Carl Luna and Martha Barnett, they will both be at the second annual conference on restoring civility to civic dialogue taking place at USD tomorrow. When there's virtually no agreement on not just opinions but facts these days between the political parties, where can politicians find that space for civil dialogue on issues?

LUNA: That becomes -- it's all interconnected. How we elect people in the primaries, which tend to polarize, the media and the rest. What you need to do is look at the core things you do agree with. One of the dirty little secrets of American politics, we're all liberals. By liberal, it means we all believe in the concepts of liberalism as laid out by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson. Rim Limbaugh believes you rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How can we work down to working to effective government policies to procure it? When you're just doing the sound bites on it, this is no middle ground. It used to be though the house and the Senate could meet to work these things out. They can't do that any longer. So we the citizens have to start demanding it, of our politician, of the media, and of each other. We got to stop going for the cheap shot and work for the hard decision.

CAVANAUGH: If indeed our public dialogue has gotten out of hand, what do you think cause today? Is it partly the media's fault?

BARNETT: Sure, sure. I think that people have profited off of creating conflict. That's the essence of drama, right? As Carl was saying, if we take more time to discuss these matters, then I think maybe there's some hope. As long as we recognize that how you say things really is as important as what.


LUNA: Richard luger gave a speech last week. He was defeated in the Republican primaries in a locked seat in Indiana by a more conservative candidate who then went on to lose. He described basically the stalk show industrial.

LUNA: You create it on the Internet and with the talk shows on TV and radio. This whole industry that thrives on conflict. And it's made millionaires and billionaires out of a few people, and it's impoverished our dialogue for the rest of us. We need to recognize that and hold people accountable.

CAVANAUGH: When I think about intense political debate being conducted in a mostly civil manner, I think about the question and answer sessions held by the British parliament. Right, right, right

CAVANAUGH: It's loud, Riverside Countious, heated, but hopeful respectful. Is that the sort of thing you'd like to see happen in this country?

BARNETT: I would love to see that happen! I would love to see more first person plural to begin with.

BARNETT: I think so much of this kind of political discourse that Carl is talking about is a blood sport. It's a win/lose, zero-sum game. And I have to say that as corny as it sound, when I hear in the U.S. Senate, for example, someone talking about my esteemed colleague from South Carolina or the gentleman from West Virginia, I have to think that makes some kind of difference, that that little bit of extra social WD-40 in a discussion.

CAVANAUGH: You're going to be speaking on a panel in this conference. What is your particular take on this?

BARNETT: Well, I think generally what I said, that civility goes back to the idea of government and relating to each other as citizens. That we're all as doctor king said involved in this -- what is that great quote? A web of mutuality.

LUNA: There it is.

BARNETT: And it's embodied in that very word, civility.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of people will come back, I think there was this revolution that took place in the latter half of the 20th century where all of this esteemed colleague nonsense, and these little courtesies, they didn't mean anything. Let's get to the heart of the matter. Let's get down to business and really talk about what we mean. When we lost in our general life that kind of courtesy, what did we lose?

LUNA: We lost a lot. There's a wonderful line in a movie, blast from the past, for a guy who came from the 1950s, and his morality is thrust into the '90s. And another fellow says I thought he was being all uppity and better than now because he's always polite. He explained that to me is that I'm respecting others. And that's all civility means. It means to be respectful of others. When you lose that, you break down our personal connection, and it's very hard to get back together again and work toward common views.

CAVANAUGH: Martha, what do you think a return to respect would actually do? What would it do to our civic dialogue?

BARNETT: Well, I think exactly that. It would perhaps remind us that we all have a common ground, and we can get to even more common ground! A more perfect union, how about that?

CAVANAUGH: Do you think it would in a sense, this is what I'm trying to get at -- the extreme positions seem to be so popular these days. Do you think that it would sort of move the country a little back to the middle?

BARNETT: I would hope so. I think it would challenge us. Because I think it's really easy for any of us to start resorting to that mental shorthand. And to stereotype people. That story about the woman who left Westboro Baptist church, the church that was picketing all the funerals, and the God hates fags things, there was a moving bit of coverage about one of these women leaving the church, and it was wrenching for me to read, and I had to look at my own prejudices when I was reading that. And I think that if we could just all step back and take a deep breath, and recognize that every political position has some pros and cons, and that the way we move forward as a society is in that dynamic of dialogue rather than just digging our heels in and not going anywhere.

CAVANAUGH: So Carl, it's actually all of our mothers were true by saying it's not exactly what you say, it's the way you said it!

LUNA: You get more flies with honey, as they used to say.

LUNA: The gentlemanliness of the Senate, Thomas Jefferson put that in place in the 17 '90s knowing that they were barely hanging together as a young country. And disputes could lead to civil wars or duels between people. And we would like to try to avoid that.