In the decades since the invention of the internet and the lessening of regulations on cable news networks, many have noticed a distinct change in the way that people speak to one another. Online, conversation seems stunted, partisan, and rude. But has much changed in society? Or have we just not noticed we’ve always been like this? To understand more of what’s happened to civility, we spoke with Alice Stewart, CNN political commentator and communications consultant; Michael Zeldin, TV legal analyst with experience stretching back to the Clinton impeachment proceedings; and Richard Levick, founder and CEO of LEVICK.
ABERMAN: Are things different now from, say, the way they were 30 years ago?
STEWART: I will jump in here and say, yes. When we talk about civility in politics and the civil discourse that we have going on, I’m often reminded of something that Ronald Reagan said. It’s that someone that agrees with you 80 percent of the time is your friend and ally, not a 20 percent foe. And unfortunately, people have gotten away from that mindset. They are so single minded in this. It goes on both sides of the aisle. Oftentimes, if they see that you don’t agree with them politically, they are automatically going to put you in the foe category without having a conversation. And I’d like to think at some point we can get back to the mindset where, let’s just agree to disagree, and find out there actually are a lot more things to talk about than politics. And that’s that’s a great focus, and that’s a great goal to have. I think we’re a long way from there. But that’s why I believe we’ve gotten to this mindset, because people think that if you’re not on the same page ideologically, you can’t be on the same page. And that’s unfortunate.
ZELDIN: So I agree. I think that really there has been a slow death of civility over the years. I think there are a lot of things that account for it. On the Hill, for example, it used to be that members stayed around on weekends. And on weekends, they actually got to speak to one another in social settings and they got to form friendships, and those friendships carried over to policies that, to Alice’s point, they could be 80 percent friends, disagree on 20 percent, but move forward. You saw that, you know, historically with Teddy Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, good friends who were able to accomplish things together, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, friends, they could accomplish things together, though they disagreed on some fundamental policy issues. We don’t have that anymore. There’s a lack of sort of underlying friendship that, therefore, denies them the opportunity to find consensus on policy. So I think it’s a problem. Yes.
LEVICK: And Michael, you know, you’re absolutely right. Although we did see some of the undercurrents of the absence of civility, even going back to Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy as Orrin Hatch, who was criticized for attending Ted Kennedy’s funeral. We started to see it at that time, but it was still on the outskirts. Now it’s the center of our politics. We’ve really become NASCAR. You know, NASCAR is just traffic, but for the accidents, and now it’s accidents all the time. We seem to want that Hollywood on the Potomac, we’ve become all about television, entertainment, even this impeachment is the televised impeachment. It’s also, I think at every level, when we were kids, when we were young adults, we would read columnists. As a liberal growing up, I would read George Will. I would disagree with him on everything except his baseball columns. But I would read him, and realize, I’d better get my act together. I’d better know my arguments. And now what we do is, we have a cancel culture and just dismiss the other side as opposed to learning from it.
ZELDIN: Well, I think that is in some measure a responsibility of the way the media has divided itself up into camps. So when I was a kid, there were three news stations and I listened to CBS News, and Walter Cronkite told me the way it was and Eric Sevareid gave me his commentary at the end. And we also agreed on a basic set of facts, and that drove our decision making. Now, you can’t even decide on what the facts are, because different camps argued different facts, and therefore we can’t even find that agreement. And so, it’s problematic.
STEWART: And this goes back to the adage, there’s three sides to every story. There’s yours, mine, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. But a lot of people don’t want to subscribe to that theory. I have a story. I used to have a radio show. It was a political show. It was from a conservative standpoint. But I welcomed conversations with people across the aisle, and I wanted to do a fun segment about food. And this was in Little Rock. Reached out to some of the local foodies that were huge food bloggers. Asked them all. Hey, I’d love to do a segment on food every Friday. One of them outright said, absolutely not. I know who you work for. I know what you stand for. You’re against everything I stand for. I would never come on your show. And I said, I’m sorry you feel that way. I would love to just talk about food. And then he got back with me and said, you know, I’ve done some research on you. I know some of your friends. I apologized. They came every Friday for the rest of my show, and it was probably the most enjoyable part of the show because we realized we all totally politically disagree. But we found a common interest, and a common topic, and developed relationships based on that, and put politics on the backburner, and talked about something that was actually enjoyable. And it was a really good way to demonstrate to people that you can have civil conversations if you actually just put a lot of disagreements aside, and find where we agree. Because in the end, we all probably agree on more than we disagree on.
ABERMAN: I find it’s really interesting when we start to talk about this, and it raises to my mind the question is, is the media a mirror of society, or vice versa? Is the lack of civility we’re talking about media-led? Is it led by human behavior?
ZELDIN: I think a little of both. I think that human behavior drives media, because the media has to make a profit, if you will. We’re not all NPR, and so, they reflect what is their demographic opportunities. And at the same time, they drive opinion, and thereby create these these camps. I think there’s a little of both here. I don’t see media as the blame, or people driving toward a Fox network that didn’t previously exist. I think there are opportunities, and they each rely on one another for support.
LEVICK: You know, after Hertz and Farnsworth, with the invention of radio and television waves, we felt as a society that the airwaves were sacred. They were public. They were limited. And so we had the Federal Communications Commission that would oversee the distribution and the use of this limited resource. We had a fairness doctrine until the mid 80s, but no more. Not only do we have, as Michael referred to, the 500 different television stations, all targeting a demographic of about 100 each. But we also have, now, the airwaves, if you will, the Internet is being determined by the FAANG: Facebook, Apple, Alphabet, Netflix and Google. A very limited number of companies are determining how we communicate, and what’s fair. And as a result, we’re also finding, in part as a result to Michael’s point, it’s both. It’s both where politics and media have gone. But it’s also where we are. We’re not particularly civil with each other. It’s said that the meanest place on earth is Twitter. And how we treat each other is only proving what Plato and Socrates said about democracy, that the death of democracy would be too much democracy. We treat each other with anonymity, and an absence of appreciation of difference of opinion. And we’re looking for, as Alice said earlier there, 20 percent we disagree with. And then we excoriate.
STEWART: The liquid courage of social media is really astounding. The people that get behind their profile of a cat and say outlandish and horrendous things is really unfortunate. And it it has grown simply because people are not held accountable for statements that they make. And often the more an anonymity they can claim, the more outrageous their comments are. But with regard to the news media and and how they contribute to this, the reality is that journalists, by and large ones that I have dealt with, whether I was in news or now in politics, they are out there to present both sides of the story, and let the viewers or the readers decide. They are fair and impartial. But the news business, in the end, is a business, and they operate on the law of supply and demand. And if viewers out there want to hear something of a more liberal slant, they will provide that. If viewers want to hear something of a more conservative slant, they will provide that. So you have to realize, they’re putting out what the people are asking for, and so it’s really back and forth. Whether it’s what came first, the chicken or the egg. People tune in and turn in to what they want to see.
ABERMAN: Richard, I’ll turn to you. What are you thinking?
LEVICK: Alice, you said media is giving people what they want. And I think this question is, ultimately, as easy to separate as iced tea and sugar after you’ve already mixed them. They’re so interrelated. The thing that concerns me about the Internet, this invention by Al Gore, is: where are we going? When we sit down to the keyboard, I think right now we wonder, well, you know, am I in control or is the computer in control? And the folks over at Turbine Labs, who do a lot of analysis on this, say that the race is already over, the algorithms in the Internet already help us. They not only know what we want to buy, they’re helping us decide. And it’s very hard, I think, for us to separate ourselves from these machines that are omnipresent. Some rules, I think when we get on the Internet, we ought to treat it like the sidewalk, not the highway. When we’re on the sidewalk and someone accidentally steps in front of us, we don’t flash the bird or yell and scream at them. We say, excuse me. When we’re on the highway, we feel we’re anonymous, and we honk and we tailgate, and we treat them with extraordinary rudeness and sometimes danger. If we start to think of ourselves as a community, as a civil society, as a voluntary one, where we all voluntarily stop at the stop signs for a well-ordered society, and treat each other on the internet as we would with an in-person conversation. We’ll take a huge step towards civility.
ZELDIN: So I think that’s a great way of approaching it. But I have a little bit different way of doing it, which is I’m not on the Internet. I have decided that it’s not a medium for adult communication. So I don’t tweet, I don’t Instagram. I don’t do any of those things. I have a legacy Facebook page where I post particular songs that I like to listen to. But no politics, no discourse. What I’ve found is that the Internet isn’t as upsetting to me, because I’m not present on it. I don’t have to listen to the trolls, and I don’t have to, you know, suffer the slings and arrows that are present. I sometimes think that if only people would take a step back from using that as an adult communication vehicle, maybe we could return a little bit closer to the civility that Alice and I long for.
STEWART: I am on the Internet. I do Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I’m really not hip on a lot of the new younger generation places on the Internet, but it’s part of my business. I need to get on there. But what I have found is that, whether I have written an op ed, or whether I’ve done a television appearance, and people go on Twitter. you can generally tell when you get a lot of feedback. They’re complaining about something. But oftentimes, if it’s someone that is credible and they’re giving a constructive response, or constructive criticism on a point that I’ve made and I engage with them, we often come to the idea that, OK, I disagree with you, but I see where you’re coming from. I appreciate the feedback. So I look at it as an opportunity to engage with people. I never expect to change anyone’s mind, but at least engage in the conversation, because if we don’t do that, we’re certainly not going to to take any steps towards civility. There are others that have the cat profiles that are just profane, that I just ignore. But you have to get to the point to where you engage with those that seem to want to have a conversation, and others, you just tune it out.
ABERMAN: Do you think we might get largely where we want to get to if we just made it that nobody could be anonymous on the web?
ZELDIN: I think that would help. I think that when you are accountable for yourself in a public domain, then you think longer and harder about what you’re going to say. I think anonymity is a wonderful way for people to behave badly, and it would be nice if that was a possibility. But I don’t think it’s a possibility, which is again, why I don’t participate in it, because I don’t like the prospect of being anonymously trolled by people who need a life.
LEVICK: In Stephen Covey’s seminal book, Seven Habits, he talked about our personal and professional trust banks. And when our trust banks are high, we can hear things from people, whether it’s shorthand or limited communications, and we interpret it in a safe and effective way. I don’t know if Michael really meant to say X, but this is what I’m hearing because I know Michael, high trust bank and we used to operate with high trust banks. Now we operate with extremely low trust banks. So we’re looking for the -ism in everything, the homophobia, the racism, the sexism, whatever it is, the 20 percent that we can disagree with. And we feel somehow that we’re hyper ethical if we call people out. And what it’s really resulting in is prior restraint. It’s a new form of prohibition. When people are attacked on the Internet, even if the mob only represents 5 or 10 percent, the bullying wins, because others, who are fair minded, are afraid to get in. Here’s the prior restraint. They’re afraid to be allied, because they know that they, too, will be attacked. The number of people we have either represented or had in our office who have been falsely accused, and you look in their eyes and you realize off the record, people will tell you, I’ll stand up for you. But I’m afraid to go on the Internet. And facts, whether it’s independent law firms, or board minutes, or whatever it is that can show proof of the point, are dismissed as just so much hyperbole.
ABERMAN: You know, I’m listening to this and I’ve never thought about this before, and I’ve done prior shows, and I’ve been really hard on the tech economy. It’s democratized everything. The real issue here is people are putting up with this. This may be a situation where literally we are reflecting when enabling bad behavior. And this really won’t stop until people get disgusted with it.
STEWART: The problem is, so much of our society now is focused around social media. What we have many times, whether we’re talking about social media, or if you’re frustrated with the way you were treated at a restaurant, you’re going to have the silent majority and the vocal minority. The people that are in the minority oftentimes are the most vocal about being critical. Being condescending, being negative. And those are the people that get on social media and say hateful and hurtful things. And that’s where you have to just tune it out. Some people obviously choose Michael’s plan of just avoiding it altogether. But there are places you can go, and people you can engage with, that are your way of saying, I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it anymore. But you just have to know the right places to go. And I view a lot of the communication I get from people, and we have this conversation. Look, I’m not as concerned with what your true north is, but that you have one. And if you want to be consistent in that, and that is your core value and your conviction, I respect that. And hopefully, you’ll do the same with me. And that’s where you have civil conversations.
ABERMAN: That’s what citizens should do, frankly. We’ve got a little bit of time left, a minute or so. If I made you each dictator for a day, and you had all this power, what would you do to change the situation?
LEVICK: I think your point about removing the anonymity, but remembering we’re all in a community and we’re all neighbors. Let us start treating each other that way, and we’ll be, I think, a much better society.
ZELDIN: Well, I think that is exactly what I was going to say. It does, you know, sort of take a village in a sense, and it takes people to behave as if they live in a village. And the anonymity that the Internet allows for, I don’t think it actually is the democratization of communication. I think it is a tyranny of communication, because people are not accountable. If you think about the town square in the days of old, people showed up in the town square. They weren’t hooded or anonymous. They stood there and they argued their point, and people argued about it. That was what the First Amendment was about. It wasn’t about anonymous trolling of people. And so I’m very concerned about this exact point of anonymity, in the communication vehicle that allows for an end of civility.
STEWART: A couple of things come to mind with regard to the Senate trial. Last week, Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out to those on the Senate floor, stop your being petty and underhanded, and let’s work together. Respect where you are. And I think we can take that across this country as well. Stop being petty and underhanded. But more importantly, what I’m going to take away from what we have heard on the Senate floor is what the Senate chaplain said to start off one of the days last week, where he said: there are patriots on both sides of the aisle in this room, and that is true across the country. We just have to realize there are patriots all across this country. We all may be on different sides, but at the end of the day, we’re all Americans. We all have a common goal and common interests. And let’s have a more mutual respect for that concept.
ABERMAN: I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks for summing up today’s show. This was a really interesting conversation. I think the big message I’d like all of you to take away is: if you’re unhappy with the lack of civility. Be polite. Let’s start there.