Tom Eblen: As campaign season officially begins, a call for civility

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 28, 2014 

The filing deadline for Kentucky elections was Tuesday, and you know what that means: Radio and TV will soon be awash in attack ads for the Senate and Congressional races, and even some local campaigns are likely to turn ugly.

The Kentucky Council of Churches doesn't think it should be that way. The 66-year-old organization that represents more than a dozen Catholic and Protestant denominations and fellowships has launched a year-long initiative to try to raise the level of civility in public discourse.

"The idea emerged from a sense that their congregations are often torn apart by conflicts with roots in the larger culture," said the Rev. Marian McClure Taylor, a Presbyterian minister and the council's executive director. "Faith can escalate the level of intensity of debate about public issues."

Taylor, who earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University before going to seminary, thinks the intensity of partisan politics may be the biggest cause of incivility today, and it often is amplified by opinion media and social media.

"One of the strategies to win political races now is to drive wedges on a few issues that people will get intensely emotional about," she said. "You win elections by convincing people they need to go to war against people who believe differently."

This isn't a new topic for the council. In 1995, its board approved a Statement of Campaign Ethics, which it hopes to bring new attention to it. The statement begins with passages from the Bible's book of Exodus, warning against bearing false witness and spreading false reports.

Among other things, the statement rejects personal attacks, "innuendo and lies", secrecy in campaign financing, single-issue voting, media promotion of "undue polarization" and voting for self-interest rather than public good.

The council devoted its annual meeting last October to the topic. The council is asking for nominations for awards it plans to present this October for people who are good models for civility in public dialogue.

Taylor has been preaching on the topic, and more programs are planned later this year. She also is considering whether the council should call out politicians whose campaign tactics violate the Statement of Campaign Ethics. Even if the council doesn't find a way to hold politicians accountable, she said, voters should.

Religious leaders aren't the only ones concerned about this issue, which has made politics nastier and governing more difficult.

Jonathan Haidt, a social scientist at the University of Virginia and author of the 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, sees incivility as a natural result of polarization. Today's political parties are more "ideologically pure" than in the past and compromise is often seen as a betrayal of principle.

Haidt thinks part of this is the result of demographics: the generation that came together to fight a common enemy during World War II was succeeded by Baby Boomers who grew up fighting each other over the Vietnam War, civil rights and social issues.

It also is easier now for Americans to segregate themselves by where they live, who they associate with and what media they read, listen to and watch. Media choices often create "confirmation bias" rather than exposing people to divergent views, driving people to extremes rather than bringing them to consensus.

Haidt writes that one way for conservatives and liberals to better understand each other is by focusing on the way they perceive and balance six basic moral concerns: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

So how can we make public and political discourse more civil?

Haidt thinks the first step is to make political "demonization" as socially unacceptable as, say, racism or sexism. It's also a matter of acknowledging that those we disagree with are not crazy or evil. They just disagree.

Taylor urges politicians and voters to focus on issues rather than personalities; to talk with people and discuss ideas rather than simply labeling them; and to avoid assigning motives to those with whom we disagree.

"The blind spot we have is thinking everyone else needs this," she said. "If we can get to the point where we realize we all need this, then we'll be getting somewhere."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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