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Restoring Restraint & Civility in America

Recently, in an essay titled The Root of Violence, I proposed that the solution to the problem of violence is not to deny anyone’s freedom of speech, but to restore the moral context of that freedom—respecting others and exercising restraint and civility regardless of our feelings toward them. Such behavior is not inborn but must be modeled and encouraged in the culture.

Much more difficult than saying that respect for others must be encouraged in the culture is determining exactly how that can be accomplished. Let’s begin by identifying the realities that must guide any such discussion.

To respect other people, we need to consider them worthy of respect. That view can be reached only by reasoned judgment, not by feelings, which incline us to respect people who are like us and to disrespect others, or at least be suspicious of them. The latter reactions fuel hatred and violence.

The reasoned judgment I am referring to is that sameness or difference in race, religion, ethnicity, or culture is not a reliable basis for respecting or disrespecting someone. (Character is such a basis, but people of any group can possess that.)

But what if the difference is one of viewpoint or opinion? Is that difference sufficient reason for disrespecting others? (Many people believe so—that explains why there is so much hatred and violence within our culture.) No, it is not sufficient reason. Differences of opinion between people can be due to one or both making an honest mistake in judgment.

The way to identify errors in judgment is to test opinions (our own as well as other people’s) for validity This is done by examining relevant facts, comparing possible interpretations, and determining the soundness of the arguments for and against the opinions.  

Disagreements of opinion are common.  After all, simply expressing an opinion in the company of others encourages the others to comment, which raises the possibility of disagreement.

In addition, not everyone who joins in a discussion of opinions is skilled in analysis or knowledgeable about the subject being discussed. Some may even believe skill and knowledge are unnecessary—they may, for example, assume erroneously that having a right to an opinion guarantees that the opinion will be right.

Disagreements about issues can occur even when all the people involved are both skilled and knowledgeable, but they are much more likely to occur when one or mor of the people are neither.

Even if we understand the previous seven realities, feelings can overwhelm understanding on occasion and lead us to disrespect others, engage in hate speech, and perhaps be tempted to violence.

What Parents Can Do

The family has the greatest opportunity to teach personal responsibility and cultivate the habits of restraint and civility in young people. The most obvious way is to demonstrate and encourage expressions of courtesy (“please” and “thank you”) and acts of thoughtfulness toward others. Less obvious but no less important is to help young people master techniques of self-control, such as recognizing negative feelings as they arise and preventing them from intensifying; also, when expressing strong feelings, modulating one’s voice and moderating one’s words.

Among the best ways to cultivate restraint and civility in young people is to discuss events and issues, large and small, as a family. (Dinnertime is perhaps the best time for most families, with electronic devices banned.) By discuss I do not mean having parents tell children what they should think, but instead encouraging everyone to contribute without fear of being interrupted or attacked. All should understand that they are free to change their minds in the course of discussion without apology or embarrassment. The goal should not be to “win” the discussion by convincing the others but simply to explore ideas together. Parents should remind themselves and their children that both wise and foolish thoughts are likely to arise during any discussion and the greatest challenge is to be polite and gracious even in the midst of disagreement.

Some parents will have difficulty handling such discussions because, even though they know their children must learn to think for themselves, they can’t bear to have the process occur in their house. They will thus want to engineer discussions so that they will have the last word, and maybe most words before it, as well as to decide every issue. That approach may make them feel more secure but it won’t cultivate sound reasoning or civility in their children.

Here’s a tip for such parents: Try not to make assertions at all; focus instead on asking questions—“What other ways are there of looking at this issue?” “Has that idea been tried in other places? If so, what consequences occurred?” “What criticisms do people have about that opinion? Are any of them valid?” These and similar questions stimulate young people’s thinking more than parental assertions (especially ex cathedra ones) ever could. And they make discussion more enjoyable.

Such family discussions, conducted regularly, are among the best ways to ensure that the people who leave home each day are respectful of and civil toward the people they encounter.

What Schools Can Do

Every suggestion I made above about the home applies to the schools, as well. The main difference is the setting—instead of the dinner table and one family, schools have a more formal place and numerous individuals from different homes.

When I began my career as a college educator many decades ago, I believed that the main goal of virtually every course at every level of education should not simply be having students learn names and dates and events but, instead, having them learn how to think meaningfully about their subjects. For example, in history class students should be wrestling with specific problems or issues faced by historians and then discuss their findings in class. (I later wrote a guide for teachers titled Teaching Thinking Across the Curriculum.) In that teaching model the role of the teacher, like that of the parent, would be helping students become effective thinkers rather than passive listeners.

The challenge of creating an effective learning environment is more difficult for teachers than for parents because students come from different backgrounds and in some cases lack respect for one another or for authority, qualities that they must gain before they can exercise self-control and courtesy in discussion. The best way to help them reach this point is to create a few simple yet engaging discussion formats that challenge their ingenuity. For example, for a class of high school students, the teacher would say: “Here’s a challenge—Imagine you are a middle school teacher. You’d like to introduce more interesting activities that let students solve problems and make decisions instead of just memorizing information. But you know how unruly students can be at that stage, so you need a way to ensure that every student will feel comfortable participating and the lessons will go smoothly. How would you solve this problem?” Their responses would provide the approach the teacher can use . . . with her students’ prior approval! 

What The Communications Media Can Do

Reporters and commentators, both in print and electronic media, should revisit the journalistic Code of Ethics created in 1923, and modified in 1996 by the Society of Professional Journalists. Both codes agree about general principles. For example,

The original code says, “A journalist who uses his power for any selfish or otherwise unworthy purpose is faithless to a high trust”; the later version says, “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.“

The original says that partisanship in news columns, “is subversive of a fundamental principle of the profession,” and in editorial comment, “does violence to the best spirit of American journalism.” The later version says journalists should “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.”

The original says, “Headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles” they introduce, and, “Sound practice makes [a] clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion.” The later version says headlines should not “misrepresent,” and “news reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.”

Interestingly, the later version is somewhat broader and more specific than the original. For example, it says that “Ethical journalists should “treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect”; “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others”; and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility,” adding that “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.” The later version also specifies that journalists should “always question sources’ motives before promising [them] anonymity,” and should “examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.” 

Even a casual comparison of these journalistic codes with current practices in journalism reveals a wide gap between principle and practice. Partisanship, dishonesty, unfairness, arrogance, and the demonization of unfavored individuals are rampant in American journalism. These practices do not just defy tradition—they also contribute significantly to the irresponsibility and incivility that plague the country.

How can so many journalists justify blatantly and unapologetically violating the most time-honored, fundamental principles of their field? The only plausible explanation is that they believe they are exempt from professional standards and rules.

What journalism needs is courageous editors and publishers who will dare to say to their reporters and commentators, “For the dignity of our profession and the good of our country, from this moment on our company will begin living by our ethical code. Those who violate it will be fired.”

Of course, not every communications operation has such leaders. Indeed, in some operations, the editors and publishers are more to blame for the ethical lapses than the journalists are. In such situations, investors and/or consumers should make their voices heard.

What The Entertainment Industry Can Do

From the earliest days of movies, the distinctions between good and evil and victims and villains were clear-cut, even when moviemakers aimed to shock their audiences. That distinction continued to be made in the early decades of television drama. Over the last half-century, however, the lines were first blurred and then, in some cases, erased. For example, instead of being told from the perspective of the victim (or from a ”third person omniscient” perspective) many crime stories were told from the perspective of the perpetrator. Dialogue, camera angles, and scene shifts were also employed in ways that created sympathy for evildoers. Today, violence by heroes often exceeds that by villains. The net effect of these changes has been to justify and glamorize violent behavior.  

Early video games also focused on non-violent challenges. Remember Pong, Pac Man, and Super Mario? But it didn’t take long before the challenge became to kill others before they kill us. Whether the opponents were evil soldiers from a rogue regime or from an alien planet, the games’ creators invited players to match or exceed the soldiers’ violence; indeed, there was no other way to win the game. The latest versions of these games are increasingly life-like, which makes the experience of make-believe violence almost as vivid as real violence. Even small children have this experience over and over, sometimes for hours a day. I am not suggesting a direct cause and effect relationship between such experiences and actual violence, but no reasonable person would deny that those experiences hinder parents’ and educators’ efforts to teach restraint and civility.

How can Hollywood and the video game industry have a more positive influence on American culture? By using their considerable creativity in more constructive ways. This doesn’t require abandoning dark themes. Many film artists have succeeded in fashioning entertaining and even compelling dark stories without glamorizing evil. (Alfred Hitchcock comes readily to mind.) The creators of video games can do similarly; for example, devising games that challenge players to build things rather than blow them up and resolve fictional issues by employing ingenuity rather than taking the easier path of glamorizing violence .

Entertainers can make individual contributions to the restoration of civility by understanding the complexities of political issues before they deliver lectures to their fellow citizens about them. A good start toward this end would be for them to realize that celebrity is not synonymous with sagacity.

What Social Media Can Do

The many venues included under the term “social media” include Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Reddit. Their greatest advantage lies in providing a unique platform for  people to share their personal views with others. Their greatest disadvantage is that some of the views that are shared are trivial, or poorly thought out, or both. Lately, many postings have gone beyond foolishness and become hateful and threatening to specific individuals and entire groups of people. The founders and officers of social media sites would do well to develop codes of civility, hire editors to review postings for violations, and disinvite offenders from using their services.

What Government Can Do

Some would argue that government should play a dominant role in restoring restraint and civility to America. I believe they are mistaken. Too many government officials are adept at finding fault with others, notably those who sit across the political aisle from them, yet woefully deficient in objectively assessing their own behavior. In sad fact, their horror stories about one another’s government initiatives, questioning of one another’s motives, and mutual demonization has played no small role in the epidemic of hate speech and violence in America. The best contribution governmental officials can make—and it would be a meaningful one—is simply to respect one another, cooperate in working for the common good, and let the other institutions of society change the culture.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved