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What, exactly, is civility? You tell us!

17 February 2011

We’re continuing to collect your thoughts on how to have constructive, productive and civil public meetings, the subject of our Friday, Feb. 18th Forum with FOCUS Greater Syracuse

(Courtesy The Post-Standard) CNYSpeaks’ Facilitator Sally Rock-Blake listens during a CNYSpeaks event.

Since the Arizona shootings, the discussion of civility in our public discourse has become more vigorous than ever and has raised many questions:

  • What exactly is “civility”? Is it about pinkie-in-the-air politeness? Is it honoring difference as legitimate and making a good faith effort to find common ground?
  • Do we even need civility to have a substantive and productive debate?
  • What is required to have productive and constructive public meetings?
  • How can public meetings be designed to help promote civility, and, perhaps more importantly, to allow citizens to express themselves in a substantive way that truly helps inform our elected representatives and other policy makers?

These are questions we’ve been wrestling with on this blog since this post first went up in a slightly different form last week, and that citizens wrested with on Feb. 18 during a free public forum.

Let’s keep the dialog going. Check out what others are saying in their comments below and please share your own thoughts.

Tell us how you define civility, or give us your take on any of the other questions above. Or tackle it another way and talk about a public meeting you attended that worked — or about one that got ugly.

Chime in any way you want. CNYSpeaks is listening!

  1. 11 February 2011 3:11 pm

    Some potentially helpful links for this discussion:

    More on the Feb. 18th Forum:
    From CNYSpeaks; From Co-Sponsor FOCUS Greater Syracuse; From Eagle Newspapers. Also stay tuned for CNYSpeaks Co-Director Tina Nabatchi in Sunday’s Post-Standard Opinion Section. (UPDATE: Here’s a link to Tina’s article.)

    Contentious Local Meetings: Jordan-Elbridge, Liverpool School Board President Dies, Maffei’s Healthcare Town Hall.

    Obama: Call for Civility After Arizona Shooting.

    A Diane Rehm Show Discussion on Civility.

    Does Civility Matter? Several interesting takes from the Guardian Newspaper

  2. 11 February 2011 5:10 pm

    Civility in public meetings shouldn’t be code for eliminating argument, debate and disagreement. That being said, both sides need to agree that all sides of an argument should be heard during a public forum. The Tea Baggers disrupting the health care town hall meetings were on a search and destroy mission–they did not consent to debate, only to disrupt and discredit.

  3. 12 February 2011 1:07 pm

    Great comment Phil. Thank you. Actually, you’re probably the perfect person to go a bit more in depth on where the line is between being heard and being disruptive. As an organizer, part of your job is to bring a crowd and make a statement. If there is opposition there, you want it to look as if your crowd is bigger, more passionate, etc. Yet, as you said so well, you don’t want to prevent the opposition for being heard at all. How do you pull that off, and how to do you work with the people you organize to ensure they adhere to the same standard? Is that a conversation that needs to take place, or do you trust that the people that come with you to a public hearing understand where that line is? SUN seems to walk that line very effectively…

  4. 14 February 2011 3:24 pm

    1) We try to leaven everything we do (if possible) with humor. Signs, props to leave with the target etc. are thematic, yet non-threatening. (For instance, at a city budget hearing we brought every councilor a baked potato–with fixin’s–so there would be no need to pass the hot potato and everyone could directly address our controversial demands.)

    2) We are, first and foremost, dedicated to developing homegrown, grassroots leadership. Putting people into situations where they act like buffoons does nothing to create leadership. We respect our members too much to demand foolish behavior.

    3) We are organized and know how to walk the line between genuine disagreement and off the charts disagreeableness. How? Hard work. We meet before the event and role play. We have leadership meetings to decide on our message and assign responsibilities. We often tape our events and go over the meeting afterwards to see what we can improve. We try not to just show up and wing it.

  5. 14 February 2011 5:51 pm

    That’s great protocol Phil. Humor, education, and the strategic knowledge that pushing it too far does more harm to your position than good. Love it! Thanks for sharing.

  6. OrangeFan permalink
    14 February 2011 5:54 pm

    I actually think the problem is that people are offended too easily. Democracy is not for the faint of heart. Public officials need to be able to hear criticism and to witness protest without interpreting that as uncivil behavior and without calling the cops or hiding out of misplaced fear. On the other hand, anything that actually does threaten an official’s safety is clearly illegal and shouldn’t be tolerated.

  7. TammyQ permalink
    14 February 2011 10:07 pm

    From what I’ve seen people loose their perspective when given the microphone. It’s the same at sporting events. People get out of control. I think people need to see this potential in themselves and learn to control it.

  8. 15 February 2011 10:11 am

    Great comments everyone! Thank you.

    Below are a few additional comments left on our Facebook page, and on Tina Nabatchi’s Post-Standard Op-Ed from Sunday, as published on We plan to compile these comments and use them as a handout during the forum on civil discourse Friday, and then also add them to the data collected Friday, which ultimately will be the basis of a handbook to help public officials design better meetings. We won’t attach names to the comments unless you want us to.

    Jim on Facebook: “You must have a facilitator and an agenda. You also have to have a set of ground rules that define a standard for behavior. Then the facilitator must enforce those rules. In other words, no Casper Milktoast as facilitator.”

    kindredsoul (excerpt) on “Bottom line..meetings with elected officials cannot be constructive or find common ground when it is allowed to use their law degrees to utilize loopholes finding was to give friends and families jobs…”

    mattydalekid on “Because those who do not have a solid argument must shout to make their argument seem important. Once you raise your voice or throw an insult you have lost the debate because what you are saying is my argument has no substance so i have to change the way the discussion is being held. ”

    keepwaterclean on (one of several commentators who referred to the Jordan-Elbridge School Board): “Bottom line: The Board has failed to listen to the public and has not acted in the public interest. Taxes will go up and the Board clearly does not care. That has created frustration on the part of the people, and the result is simply the return of the public to treat the Board the way the Board has treated them.”

    Huge, Syracuse. Huge! on (excerpt, also referring to J-E): “Lets explore why meetings turn uncivil: * A very cliquish board has bludgeoned the school budget; *… Secret meetings; … (An expectation that the) community should just shut up and deal with it- no emails or calls will be answered; * Every two weeks you can package up your frustration … watching the district be run up against the rocks and the Board will let you speak for five minutes, while … armed guards stand at the ready to hustle you out. * Civility, to this group, equals unquestioning obedience. … Do you really need to ask why people get “uncivil”? It’s the only thing that remotely keeps power-hungry dimwits in check.”

    ChairmanAl01 on
    : “The political strategy of division in order to cement “the base” seems to be a major contributing factor; but we can’t dismiss the growing chasms that exist between the classes, and the resentment and anger those chasms foster. As a nation, we’re growing more divided, and angry.”

    Keep them coming and thanks again!

  9. pkatz permalink
    15 February 2011 2:04 pm

    Re the JE situation: Completely agree that the board does not deserve the public’s support or respect, but disagree that incivility solves anything. You can have an organized, persuasive, dynamic, opposition that creates significant pressure on the board without personal attacks, etc. Anger is a completely legitimate emotion and one that’s highly motivating. But it needs to be channeled strategically and we need to model behavior our kids can be proud of.

  10. Denise permalink
    12 January 2012 11:45 am

    The first comment from Phil, that you actually complimented, was not in the spirit of civility. Just what are “Tea Baggers?” I’ll bet that you could not define that term in polite company.

    • gregmunno permalink
      12 January 2012 4:20 pm

      Hi Denise and thank you for the comment. I’m curious: If you were me, would you have deleted Phil’s comment?

      Here’s my take:

      I agree with you that the term “Tea Baggers,” which is clearly a derogatory reference for those who identify with the Tea Party movement, is not particularly civil.

      However, I think the rest of Phil’s comments were insightful and contributed meaningfully to the conversation — especially since he left the first comment, thus sparking the dialog, which I appreciate.

      We can’t promote civility to the extent that it suppresses discourse, which, in essence, is Phil’s point.

      Likewise, we can’t promote a free-for-all that completely disregards civility, leading to conversations that have little value in the marketplace of ideas.

      We need on-topic, relevant, open-minded, informed discussion that represent the plurality of perspectives that make up our society.

      I think this is best done in a civil way, where commentators refrain from personal attacks and focus on the issues at hand; where a diversity of opinions and people can be heard and taken seriously.

      But I can’t hope for genuine dialog AND impose my ideal of what the dialog should sound like.

      Instead, I choose to tease out the “best” of what I hear and read — ie, comments that advance the discussion.

      Dialog is a two-way street (at least) and I want to do my part to advance and promote it. It can be a bit of a balancing act, and I am certainly open to the idea that I sometimes get it wrong.

      I’d love to hear more for Denise and others on this. What are your feelings on how to handle comments that have value but are not particularly civil in the context of a facilitated dialog?

  11. 12 January 2012 4:43 pm

    Denise’s comment is well taken–and it also proves my point. The emphasis on civility is often code for suppressing speech that may upset the “polite company” that Denise is concerned about. I do not care if someone is offended when I make reasoned comments about issues I care about. My only concerns are the factuality of my argument and allowing others to make dissenting points.

    The issue of “civility” at public meetings became an issue because the Tea Baggers deliberately sought to drown out debate and bloody the noses of the President and the U.S. Representatives supporting health care reform. Groups like CNYSpeaks missed the boat when they focused on issues of tone and civility, rather than on issues of intent and free speech. (and what shadowy corporate/political operatives funded this deliberate mission of the Tea Baggers.)

    To Denise and all members of polite company: Tea bagging is a sexual act between two consenting homosexual males. The nascent group of Tea Party protestors used this term to describe themselves–because they were unaware of the double entendre. I choose to honor the originalists’ use of the term Tea Bagger.

  12. 12 January 2012 11:11 pm

    What’s the strategic reason behind arguing a point in a public forum? If it is to persuade others who may hold a view contrary to yours, you have to be careful not to push them into a defensive posture, you have to be careful not turn a policy debate into something personal. A thick skin and sense of humor are clearly assets in the public arena. But few people want to be part of such a scrum. CNYSpeaks, meanwhile, is interested in inclusive, constructive conversation. So I still think tone and restraint are part of the equation. I guess it depends on your goals.


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