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Expert Works to Calm Rage

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. 

Can’t we all just get along? Well, no, probably not. But champions of civility in public life say that’s 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 — 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 one’s own identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. 

It’s not about eliminating differences. We are not the Institute for Consensus in Government — differences are enriching, but you need to approach them that way, not as a problem. People see civility as weakness — that you don’t stand for anything. We’re 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 don’t 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 — the media, entertainment, etc.? 

First, there is a lot at stake: If we don’t protect it everywhere, there might come a day where we don’t find it anywhere. And government sets a tone, and it’s something we’re all a part of. 

You’ve 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.

Most of us distinguish words and actions, but there are those who don’t. When you hear a really stirring, inspirational speech, it can motivate you to go out and do something positive. But when there is really negative, hateful speech, there will be those who take it up and say, “Let’s go.”

What can people learn in the wake of a tragedy like the Arizona shooting?

It’s a time of heightened awareness, and I’m so sorry that it has taken a time like this to get our attention. But while it has our attention, we need to take on personal responsibility to do civil discourse better.

Our programs focus on Members of Congress, college students, high school students, civic groups — we approach it on so many levels because it’s going to take all of them to shift the culture. We truly believe that is possible.

There is precedent — think back to when everyone used to throw trash out their car windows. It was just what people did. Then there was the Keep America Beautiful campaign. Now, if you throw trash out your window, everyone is just horrified. 

There are so many examples of nasty words in public life. Where are the positive examples? 

Whenever you hear people expressing themselves from the strength of their arguments rather than tearing down their opponents, that’s civility. When people separate issues from people and not equate them with personalities. 

In our programs, we illustrate each of our rules with true-life examples of civility in Congress to show people that this isn’t just wishful thinking.

What do you say to the argument that civility is a muzzle or just an outdated concept?

When we do training, we don’t just teach people about concepts, we help them put it into practice. And what people find as it unfolds is that it actually benefits them to use civility and to listen. Just saying the same thing over and over and over again, louder and louder, doesn’t get them the results they were hoping for. 

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