Civil Discourse and Public Participation

Public discourse in America has been carried on for several hundred years with very little change. It's true that public debate today does not usually meet the levels of eloquence seen in the Lincoln-Douglas debates nor in the Congressional speeches of Daniel Webster. On the other hand, the amount of mudslinging and slander in elective campaigns and the insults reported in the press do not seem any worse.

The issue that we confront today is declining public involvement in any dialogue. Since the mid 1950s, the level of public participation, as evidenced in election turnout, has declined dramatically. Today, many local elections are won by candidates with votes from less than 15 percent of the voting age population. This is a historic low point that gets lower each year.

Helpful Data

A unique political experiment may shed some light on the issue of citizen participation. In January 1990, a group of 50 randomly selected voting-age citizens gathered in Berkeley, California, to discuss the life of their city(1). Because these people live in Berkeley, they are in a milieu that is more politically active than a comparable group in most other cities. Nearly 4 out of 5 Berkeleyites are registered to vote, compared to a 1 out of 2 ratio for most of America. Moreover, half of the sample citizens in the Berkeley gathering had also been involved in political life in some form, including the PTA.

The surprising finding from this randomly selected group of citizens was that the reason most of the active ones did not remain involved in political life (going to neighborhood meetings or city council events) and the rest of the participants maintained a low level of activity was that they abhorred the acrimonious language common in public discourse. On this point they were unanimous. These ordinary citizens reported that they were offended by the yelling and invective they heard at political meetings, and they were offended by the personal insults directed at public officials and between elective candidates. As a consequence,they stayed away from public life or participated at a minimal level.

American political life is increasingly characterized by activists who tolerate badgering and uncivil discourse. The rest of the citizenry are staying away, and the number staying away is reaching a large magnitude.

Need for a Remedy

When it is important to Americans to debate a subject carefully and to make sound decisions, we put a very high priority on civil dialogue. In thousands of courts in the United States every day, lawyers, judges, citizens, and juries cautiously discuss, debate, and weigh important matters, and they are careful to use restrained civil language. Judges enforce this language code with contempt orders in extreme cases, lawyers' groups disbar their peers for violating it, and everyone recognizes the importance of civility in judicial matters.

The same is true in Congress and the state legislative bodies. By common agreement, strict codes of dialogue are enforced in all such legislatures against personal insults and acrimony. A mistake in the heat of passion is always followed by a careful apology. Decorum is very important for serious dialogue to be maintained.

In business, decorum is the norm for decision making and serious dialogue. Fifty million corporate employees go to work each day, expecting to go home without being insulted or personally attacked. It is the norm for tens of millions more in schools, universities, and hospitals and for pilots talking to each other and to airport control towers.

Tolerance Versus Civility

We should, of course, maintain our traditional tolerance for some nasty discourse in politics, but most people seem to feel that the safe space of public dialogue should be expanded so that more people will feel comfortable joining in. We can find ways to have political and public meetings that utilize civil language and discourse for all present. We can find ways to separate out the small minority who use insults, yelling, and badgering to express their sentiments. Let's give that minority separate time and separate space to be uncivil.

Meeting Facilitation

New developments in meeting facilitation, first described in a publication by Doyle and Strauss in the early 1970s (2), suggest that meetings are more effective when all present agree to simple rules of decorum. A typical facilitated meeting asks all participants to refrain from interrupting another speaker; interruption is a cruel form of insult. It further asks that speakers stay on the subject and reject the use of insults and invective.

The growing trend toward facilitated meetings suggests strongly that most Americans concur with the reasonableness of these ground rules. If we can find a way to implement such simple civil courtesy in public dialogue without infringing on First Amendment rights, we can expect more participation from thoughtful and ordinary citizens and we can broaden the base of citizen respect for civic institutions.

It is in the interest of our democratic values that we find ways to expand the safe space of public dialogue. More participation by citizens means greater respect for the current participants and greater effectiveness for the political institutions that already exist.

A Variety of Views on This Matter

Part of the problem may be that public officials and representatives hold meetings where they pay no attention, and citizens are angered by such behavior. But this seems to be a two-way street. Lack of interest is affected by the low level of dialogue; officials perk up when the subject is interesting and thoughtful, especially when they are respected. Officials at public meetings should also be held accountable to the same rules as citizen participants.

There are many occasions when citizens are righteously angry and need to vent their frustration. We should draw a distinction between a rally that expresses anger, a demonstration that calls attention to it, and a public meeting where the subject matter should be discussed reasonably. The latter requires rules of civil dialogue to be effective.

We are sophisticated enough to accept two levels of discourse. We tolerate advertising and feel we can separate content from ads, we tolerate billions in contribution to political campaigns and feel we can still have good government. We should be able to separate public badgering and abuse from civil discourse?

How can we protect the First Amendment right of free speech? This is a question that must be answered. Here is one solution: We could divide public meetings into two parts, the civil and uncivil; the civil part would be first, the uncivil would be at the end; we could have parallel meetings for the two different groups and divide audiences into the two groups so that the distinction would be readily apparent to all. There are no simple answers in advance, but it is a soluble problem when we decide it is worth solving.



(1) A scientifically random sample of 200 names was chosen from the latest jurors' list, which is close to 100 percent of the city population; these people were invited in a letter from the mayor of Berkeley to participate in a one-day session. Fifty people participated. The meeting was organized by me and Ernest Callenbach.

(2) Michael Doyle and David Strauss, How to Make Meetings Work (1986, Jove Publications).


Michael Phillips, San Francisco 1994 (revised 2000)


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