Civility, Partisanship, and the Productive Power of Leading with Questions

Remarks by Kristen Cambell at the Waging Democracy Forum

Below is a modified version of Kristen’s remarks. For a video of the full conversation, with Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer of the National Institute for Civil Discourse and Abby Michelson Porth of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of San Francisco, click here.

How can civility and sensitive use of language strengthen our democracy?

On the surface, I think this sounds like a fair question. “Why can’t we all just get along,” right? “How did it get so hard to be kind to each other?” But what we’ve begun to understand is that this question is really multilayered, and it’s imperative we don’t gloss over what’s under the surface. For example, questions like: What is the context in which this call for civility is being made? Who is making it or deciding how “civil” is defined, and why?

It’s also important to consider that this question presumes that civility is the ultimate goal. Is it? Or is civility a means to an end? And in service of that end, do people feel they’re being asked to forsake other deeply-held values or virtues in service of civility? That’s just the beginning of the complexity underneath calls for civility.

Our democracy is intricate and complex and dynamic — and faces a spectrum of challenges. The conversations we have about how to come together to solve them can’t exist in a strictly binary win/lose, us vs. them framework. We need to be more expansive than that and not have a crisis of imagination about what’s possible.

The reality is that no one aims for “civility” in a vacuum — we want civility to characterize our public discourse so that we can heal the social and political divisions that have destabilized our society and our democracy. And what these latent questions really get at is an honest look at those divisions — and they invite us to take a deeper look at the context to reach that end. If we can’t unpack or lean into some of those questions before inviting people to set a civil table, we may not be able to get people to show up.

PACE undertook an exploration in early 2017 to really understand the work being done in our sector to bring people together across lines of difference. We’ll be releasing a series of essays early in the new year to share what we’ve learned, but one thing that became clear early on is that it’s important to understand what’s at the root of the “incivility” that’s begun to characterize public discourse. Much of what we see manifesting as “incivility” can be symptoms of deeper issues: injustice, oppression, exclusion, fear, loss. In our calls for civility, do we risk glossing over the deeper issues the “incivility” reflects?

What are some of the causes of hyper-partisanship? How can we overcome hyperpartisanship as a country?

One thing we’ve begun to see more recently is that much of the language in our political sphere is the language of violence or fighting. “I won’t go down without a fight,” “this is a war on values,” etc. It’s inherently defensive and win/lose. “For you to win, I have to lose” — and no one wants to lose!

For better or worse, many people’s first exposure to civic life is through politics. And political discourse, especially today, permeates other aspects of our life. So it’s almost inevitable that partisanship seems to run deeper than ever. The debates we’re having now in the public square are usually political debates, and if we approach them as a fight with the opponent being an enemy that must be defeated and with this strictly binary orientation of winning or losing, we shouldn’t be surprised that other elements of our discourse and public square become colored with this partisan mentality.

Ultimately, I think the challenge is deeper than simply having unproductive, perhaps antagonistic conversations in the public square, but that this strict binary really limits the scope of possibility. Our democracy is intricate and complex and dynamic — and faces a spectrum of challenges. The conversations we have about how to come together to solve them can’t exist in a strictly binary win/lose, us vs. them framework. We need to be more expansive than that and not have a crisis of imagination about what’s possible.

On the other hand, some folks use this kind of strong language because they genuinely feel their lives and values or identities are in danger and the “fighting for…” language is not hyperbolic for them. It will be important to discern when this is true, vs. when this kind of language is being used for political gain, and potentially interfering with the ability to have a conversation that can lead to positive solutions to benefit all.

This kind of dichotomous language has led to partisanship and tribalism, where we’ve begun to discern from the beginning whether a speaker is on “our team” or not. And we’re more likely to grant good faith to people we believe also want us to win — which is a cycle that almost never ends in mutual understanding.

It’s this kind of politicization that led us to the language project I mentioned — to seek to understand the dynamics at play that impact understanding around the issues we care about. We see that as a first step on the path to a shared understanding.

What can individuals do to improve civility in civic life and politics?

Ultimately, this question gets at the heart of PACE’s mission — it’s not an exaggeration to say that we ask ourselves these questions every day. Our membership is also politically diverse, so we don’t have these conversations in the echo chamber that can form when people of similar ideologies come together to think about these issues. We ask people to assume positive intent because while we may have different opinions than others, we’re all in the same room because we share certain core beliefs and values. It allows for a ‘Big what, small how’ orientation. We try to model the type of engagement that we hope our members will take in their work, encourage their grantees to take, and their grantees will encourage their communities to take.

What we’ve learned is most powerful is to lead with questions, rather than answers, and to come with curiosity and humility, and in a spirit of genuine inquiry. This helps position a “seek first to understand rather than to be understood,” mindset and invites people to open up and share their story or perspective without defensiveness. It also opens the possibility that there are multiple answers, and none of us have them all.

One example I think of often is an event that one of our members, Kettering Foundation, hosted around police and community relations — perhaps one of the most tense and challenging American social issues today. They could have framed a conversation with a question like “how do we improve police and community relations?” It would have been a direct, honest, and potentially accurate question, but it also could have set the stage for participants to enter the conversation knowing which team they were on.

Instead, their framing was “how do we make sure everyone comes home safely?” This opened the spirit of the conversation in a way that proved transformative — it was disarming and served as an invitation to community members that they were coming from a place of common ground and good faith. And if someone disagrees with the premise of that question… well, that’s a whole other issue I’m not sure civil dialogue could solve.