Donald J. Trump is known for his brash online style. He frequently insults his political enemies and those who get on his bad side. For example, after his fallout with his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump insulted Tillerson on Twitter saying he was “dumb as a box of rocks” and “lazy as hell.” Similarly, he denigrated Omarosa Manigault Newman, his former White House aide, calling her a “crazed, crying lowlife” and a “dog.”
While publicly insulting those with whom you disagree is an unconventional use of Twitter by a president, how much do his insults really matter? Is Trump degrading civility in the U.S.?
How you answer this question depends, in part, on how you define civility and whether you thought it was in decline in the first place.
Since at least 2010, Americans have identified the lack of civility in society as a social problem. According to Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey, 93% of survey respondents identified civility as a problem – with 69% of those respondents citing the civility deficit as a “major problem.” These results are pretty standard. A recent survey conducted by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service yielded similar results. Ninety percent (90%) of voters reported that they are concerned about the “uncivil and rude behavior of politicians.”
Social scientists find that Americans’ assessments of civility follows from the assumption that civil discourse is polite discourse. Consequently, the vast majority of Americans would describe the tweets and descriptors used by Trump in the examples above as uncivil. Americans, however, are not simply worried about the name-calling. They are worried about the consequences of impolite discourse in politics. A 2018 poll from the PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist found that 79% of Americans said they are concerned or very concerned that the negative tone on Capitol Hill will prompt violence – a response that is prominent across the range of political identifications.
But is politeness really the best rubric for judging civility?
Unfortunately, there is not a single, clear-cut answer regarding how civility should be measured among scholars. However, if we want to have a civil conversation with someone about a controversial topic, there are a few things we can do.
Base your argument in facts – and not just the facts that fit your argument. Admittedly, this can be difficult. We tend to tune into outlets that filter the news of the day through our preferred ideological lenses. This why stations such as FOX News and MSNBC have done so well – they quite literally give us the news we prefer to see. It certainly time for us to leave our informational comfort zones and look at findings, data, and methodologies of the studies that outlets do not always correctly represent online or on the nightly news. I’m not just giving lip service to facts. Facts are critical to civility and deliberative processes. Factual information creates a shared “awareness system” that makes it easier for us to engage one another effectively. Specifically, correct information provides a foundation for disagreement, which helps us craft higher quality arguments and better understand why others might disagree with our points of view.
Expect the conversation to get impolite, but not too impolite. The reality is that we are emotional creatures and we should expect passionate and sometimes impolite language when we are engaged in a debate. For example, it is reasonable in a discussion on gun control for a gun rights supporters to argue that advocates of gun control are being stupidly short-sighted in their thinking and that they need to give the constitutional right to bear arms more thought. Likewise, it is reasonable for a gun control advocate to suggest that gun rights supporters are being narrow-minded in their thinking and failing to see that gun violence is a public health crisis. It is not reasonable, however, for a gun rights advocate to call gun control supporters stupid idiots who are ruining the country. Nor is it acceptable for a gun control supporter to argue that gun rights advocates are crazy isolationists bent on arming everyone. Clearly, the last two statements are insulting, are designed to feed (rather than discuss) political differences, and effectively shut down discourse. If you find yourself in this sort of conversation, it is reasonable to suggest that you revisit the conversation another time – and to establish ground rules for the discussion.
Changing someone’s mind should not be your goal. We often assume that if we can only get “them to listen,” they will “change their minds.” We need to accept that changing someone’s mind is unlikely – just ask yourself when was the last time you really changed your mind after a single conversation – and that changing the opinions of others is not a great goal to begin with. Your goals should be to expose yourself to a new perspective, acknowledge points of agreement and disagreement without resorting to personal attacks, and leave with a better understanding of opposing points of view. In other words, your goal should be to improve yourself rather than changing others.
Looking to start or have better conversations? Check out these resources:
National Institute for Civil Discourse (sign up for or start a dialogue near you).
National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (see their guide on having better conversations) Civil Conversations Project (start your own group and conversation)
Arguably, Trump will go down in history for his catch phrases and unconventional political use of Twitter. It is not clear, however, whether historians will be kind to him – or us – when they look back at our political discourse. The good news is that we can control how we engage in tough conversations, and that through this process of engagement we will learn more about ourselves.
Dr. Deana Rohlinger is a Professor of Sociology and serves as a member of the National Institute for Civil Discourse Research Network.
The feature image and all images in this post are from the Twitter account of Donald J. Trump.