Civility is Hard

A friend, whom we’ll call Andrea, posted a political graphic on Facebook yesterday with a rhetorical question. A friend of hers (“Debbie”) posted a comment mildly but politely disagreeing with her. Andrea and her husband both politely responded to explain their shared position. Debbie was highly offended and told her husband, who felt the need to jump in and fire back. A comment war ensued along with a few private messages between the ladies. When the dust settled, Debbie, her husband, and another of Andrea’s friends had unfriended Andrea on Facebook, and I’m not sure how much contact they will have in the future. Andrea and Debbie had been in a home group together previously and been fairly good friends until yesterday.

Three relationships were broken by one side’s inability to disagree with civility. What a waste.

Secrets Come Out

One of the blessings and curses of the Internet is its profound ability to connect us to others, particularly through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogging. As many others have found, I both learn things about others and share things with others that would probably never occur without the Internet. In person, we’re not supposed to discuss the Forbidden Topics of religion and politics, but it seems to be more acceptable online. Without Facebook, I would have no idea that my friend Susanna is a libertarian, Amber is a tree-hugger, Geri and Michelle are staunch conservatives, or Brad is a universalist. Most of you probably wouldn’t know that I’m a pacifist left-leaning Democrat without reading my blog. Knowing people’s perspectives on various issues tends to draw you toward people you agree with and to put up walls between you and people you disagree with. That’s not necessarily good, but it’s human nature, and our polarized American culture seems to amplify that basic tendency.

For example, Patrick and I were acquaintances at Baylor and hadn’t been in touch for many years. But when I saw he was a Christian leftie like me, I suddenly felt a connection with him, perhaps because very few of my people fit that description and I was thrilled to find a kindred spirit. (It can be a bit lonely being a liberal Christian Democrat surrounded by conservative Republicans here in north Texas.) So reconnecting with him was a pleasant surprise and benefit of my Facebook account. But on the flip side, when I got a negative comment from an old friend who turned out to be a pretty critical conservative Republican, I couldn’t help but feel defensive and a bit hurt. I restrained myself from responding in anger, but from that point on, I looked at her differently. I hated to change my perspective on her based on something so inconsequential, but I couldn’t help it. She was now Other, one of Them. Blame me, blame MSNBC and Fox News, blame whomever you like, but things changed a bit between us. I didn’t like it. Perhaps when it comes to the Forbidden Topics, ignorance is bliss?

The Filter is Off

Since online interaction involves more distant clicking and typing rather than more intimate voice conversations, it also gives us the courage to say things to each other that we would never say out loud. It’s worst when people can comment anonymously. Check the comments section of any online video, blog, photo, or article for a quick lesson in how ugly people can be when they hide behind a screen name.

Even when using our own names, it’s scarily easy to turn off our filters and say whatever is on our mind without worrying about how other people will take it. That’s actually one reason I blog. I can say things here that I would never volunteer in person, things I really want to say but lack the courage, initiative, or opportunity to share face-to-face, such as “Hi, I’m Andy, and I believe in climate change and an old earth, question a literal hell, and voted for Obama! Nice to meet you!”

That freedom is tremendously liberating, but it can be dangerous as well. It’s so easy to type venom to someone and hit Send when the same words would catch in my throat if spoken aloud. I try not to say hurtful things online, especially to my friends. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cooked up a juicy response to someone, probably rehearsed a few times in my head or even out loud, and then chosen to cool down instead. Most of the time, the temporary satisfaction couldn’t possibly be worth the aftermath.

Do You Understand the Words That Are Coming Out of My Mouth?

Saying what we want online can also cause unintentional problems when people misunderstand what we’re saying. Text communication eliminates many important elements of our interactions that convey meaning, such as the tone of our voice, body language, and inflection. I suspect that part of the problem in the Andrea-Debbie situation was a misunderstanding. Debbie and her husband “heard” things from Andrea and her husband that offended them, even though no offense was intended. Andrea and her husband wanted to have a mature, logical discussion on a serious topic. Debbie and her husband felt attacked when faced with a differing opinion, picked up their ball, and went home.

Agreeing to Disagree

Unless we want to live without the Internet, or we only post the blandest possible status updates or pictures that have no possibility of offending anyone in any way, we must figure out a way to interact online with some degree of civility. Common courtesy isn’t just for face-to-face conversations. We must treat each other with respect whether the other person reciprocates or not. We must also think about how our text-based message comes across to other people, particularly when many different people are reading what we write and some are less familiar with our writing style and maybe don’t detect our sarcasm. Finally, we must find a way to disagree without being disagreeable, as Bernard Meltzer said so elegantly.

It’s tempting in our culture to label and demonize the other side. You’ve no doubt heard and maybe done this yourself. Obama is a socialist. Bush is an idiot. Climate change scientists are frauds. Social conservatives are fascists. Feminists who think birth control should be covered by insurance are sluts. Creationists are narrowminded fools. Journalists are liberals. A guy with a white-sounding name named Zimmerman who shoots a black teenager is a racist. Such labels are convenient, pervasive, and make for good soundbites, but they rarely lead to productive dialog and serve primarily to boost ratings and cultivate hatred. I struggle with this issue myself, but I’m trying to fight it. We all must fight it if we’re going to get along.

Yes, being civil is hard, especially online when it’s so easy to be rude or mean. But I know it’s possible. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised at how civil people have been with me here and on Facebook, even when they’ve disagreed with me on various issues. Many thanks to all of you for your kindness. I wish that our society overall could be as gracious with each other as you have been with me.

If you don’t like what someone has to say, either respond politely or ignore it. If you’re not mature enough to let people disagree with you without defriending them, spouting off in anger, or trying to bully them into submission, stay off the Internet. (please!)

One Thing

People use a variety of criteria when placing their votes. Some people vote straight-ticket for the party of their choice, a practice that I once despised until I realized how party-loyal and homogenous most Washington politicians seem to be. Some people vote for a particular candidate who somehow attracted their interest. Some people vote against a particular candidate who somehow ticked them off. Some people vote against the incumbent, regardless of who he/she is.

For some, the choice hinges on a single issue. They vote for whichever candidate matches their view most closely on that issue. One of my relatives used abortion as her issue. She voted for whoever was more anti-choice, hoping that somehow that candidate would be able to restrict abortion access. In the 2004 and 2008 presidential races, I voted for the candidates that promised to end the Iraq war faster. In the 2010 governor’s race, I voted for the candidate that supported green energy more than fossil fuels. As people’s interests, views, and needs change, different issues might be top priority at different times. Also, some people tend not to vote unless they get worked up about a hot-button issue for a particular election. For example, I normally have zero interest in city politics, much to my dad’s chagrin. But when the city of Irving held an election on alcohol sales, I suddenly cared enough to vote in a city election.

In this year’s elections, I imagine some people have a top priority issue that will decide their vote. Jobs and the economy? The national debt? The military? The environment? Immigration?

For me, I think the deciding factor will be foreign wars, just like in the previous two elections. I plan to vote for whoever is less of a warmonger. I am weary of war. I am weary of seeing our brave men and women in uniform sent to the other side of the world to solve problems that cannot be solved. While some wars might be just (such as World War II), the ones we fight now in the Middle East waste lives, money, energy, and time and only make our enemies resent us more. The only upside I see is the jobs they provide to the military-industrial complex back home. I would much rather see many of those great minds redirected toward productive fields like medicine, space, infrastructure development, and more that will make life better for the people of our nation.

What about you? What single issue is most important to you right now? I added a new poll in the sidebar. Please vote. If you’d like, tell us about your choice in the comments.

Capitol Punishment

For at least eighty years, the most consistent urge in Washington has been to accumulate power and sanctimoniously proclaim you are doing so for the good of the nation. Sometimes it’s true. More often it’s not. But regardless of whether one is using power for good or ill, the potential for corruption is always present, as I painfully learned. – Jack Abramoff

After a wildly successful career as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, Jack Abramoff spent 3 ½ years in federal prison on charges of fraud and corruption. In 2010 he emerged from prison deeply humbled and penitent, was reunited with his family, and wrote a book about his experience called Capitol Punishment.

Prior to reading Abramoff’s book, I knew little about lobbyists beyond their generally negative connotation. In one of my favorite movies, The American President, a widowed Democratic President (Michael Douglas) hooks up with a liberal lobbyist (Annette Bening) during an election year, which gives his conservative opponent all the mud he could hope to throw during the campaign. Somehow I got the idea that lobbyists were generally liberal, so I was surprised to discover that plenty of lobbyists are conservative as well. One of them was Jack Abramoff, former national president of the College Republicans and fan of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the Tea Party.

Strange as it might sound for a convicted felon, Abramoff is an observant Jew and holds to a strict set of values. In prison, he was offended by many inmates’ porn collections. At one private White House dinner, he quietly refused to eat because the meal wasn’t kosher. He made millions of dollars and donated a huge portion of his income to various charities and individuals in need. However, over the course of his career, he gradually allowed himself to get sucked into the corruption around him, rationalizing questionable or illegal activities as being necessary to win and justified because they helped him donate more money to his charitable causes. It brought to mind the old cliché about boiling frogs. To boil a frog, you don’t throw him into boiling water. You put him in cold water and gradually turn up the heat.

For me, the most fascinating part of the book was its window into the lobbying business. Although the potential for corruption is overwhelming, the concept is simple and logical. Organizations hire lobbyists to influence legislators. As Abramoff lays out in Capitol Punishment, let’s say your organization (company, union, church, club) is threatened by a bill that’s floating around in Congress. If passed, this bill would destroy your organization. As the leader of the group, here are your choices:

  1. Cross your fingers, pray, and hope for the best.
  2. Resign yourself to defeat and shut down.
  3. Set up your own grassroots and/or online campaign against the bill via petitions, Facebook/Twitter, blogging, email, and other means.
  4. Move to Washington and “rush about Capitol Hill full time telling anyone who will listen that this bill is a bad idea”.
  5. Hire a lobbyist who knows how Congress works and has the connections you need to stop the bill.

Corruption potential aside, hiring a lobbyist is not that different from hiring a realtor to help you sell your house, a lawyer to represent you in a lawsuit, or an accountant to represent you in an IRS audit. You’re hiring an expert in a field to do something you can’t do yourself. If you need something done in Washington and have deep pockets, lobbying might be the most effective way to achieve your goal.

Unfortunately, despite all the laws that Congress passes to “fight” corruption and limit the influence of lobbyists, legislation is still a dirty, dirty business. Favors get traded for favors, free meals/trips/tickets get traded for votes, Congressional staffers get jobs with lobbying firms and vice versa, and weird riders get attached to unrelated bills because the right person was on the right committee at the right time and played golf with the right lobbyist who knew just the right thing to say to get Senator Mucketymuck onboard. Just like with term limits or campaign finance reform, how can we expect the members of Congress to pass bills that limit their own power, income, benefits, and influence? And with so many paying clients, why should the lobbyists turn down millions in fees simply because their business has a bad reputation? And why should the clients stop doing what it takes to legally fight for their own interests?

Abramoff did a pretty good job with the book itself. He tells a clear, compelling story full of insight, irony, and detail. He does admit several times that many of his actions were wrong, and I believe he’s sincere. As a husband and father, I did feel for the guy as he described spending his last few months with his wife and five children before he left for prison, knowing he would miss most of the next few years of their lives. As some reviewers have noted, the book does have a self-congratulatory tone in some places and a condescending one in others, particularly when he describes his time in prison with other prisoners who clearly “had different work ethics”. But overall I greatly enjoyed the book and learned something from it.

If you’re looking for a book to restore your faith in the integrity of the government, this isn’t the one. But if you want to learn more about how legislation and lobbying really work in Washington and some interesting ideas for reform, or a cautionary tale for how money and power and ambition can corrupt a moral person, Capitol Punishment is worth your time.

It Worked!

Yesterday numerous websites, including this one, joined together in the largest coordinated Internet blackout in history to protest two bills currently before Congress: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (House version) and PIPA (Senate) version. These bills would fundamentally change the Internet as we know it. SOPA would give the government the power to shut down any Internet site under the guise of copyright enforcement. For example, if someone complained to the government that was violating his/her copyrighted material, the government could shut down the site immediately. The potential for abuse and government-sponsored censorship should be obvious. Online piracy and copyright infringement are problems that we need to address, but these bills are not the right approach.

The good news? Our protest and the lead-up publicity seem to have worked. Concerned citizens like you lit Washington up with emails and phone calls telling their representatives to vote NO on these bills. As a result, our representatives overall have a better understanding of the issues involved. According to an email I received, last week only 5 Senators publically opposed PIPA. Now that number is up to at least 35. The Obama Administration has expressed its disapproval of the bills, which suggests a potential veto even if Congress does pass the bills. The House has chosen to postpone action on the bill pending further debate and study. We haven’t won yet, but things are looking much better for all fans of a free Internet and the First Amendment.

If you haven’t already, please visit American Censorship to contact your representatives in the Senate and House and share your concerns.

Island of Misfit Voters

I have a problem. (quit snickering!) I’m interested in politics, but my views don’t really fit with any particular party. You’ve probably noticed that I generally vote Democrat and lean liberal, but on a few issues I align better with the Republicans and am quite conservative. I also line up with many parts of the Green Party platform. It’s frustrating. It means that whenever I vote for someone, I know that my candidate holds views that I don’t like and might vote in ways that I don’t like.

Let’s call this dim twilight the Island of Misfit Voters. Do you live here, too? Welcome! We misfits need to stick together. I think there are many of us, but it’s tempting and convenient to lump ourselves into a neat label like Republican or liberal that makes ourselves sound like we fit in with a particular group. So you might not realize how misfit you are. Not sure? Here are some interesting political quizzes to help you work through your views. Each focuses on different areas:

Per my results on the third quiz, “You want government out of people’s personal lives, but you appear to desire some continued government control over people’s economic activities. There is no political party that represents your view. You would need a mix of Democratic, Green, and Libertarian politicians in office to get the balance of freedom and social justice you desire.” I’m basically a libertarian liberal who happens to be pro-life just to screw things up.


I know – I could start my own political party! I actually started writing out a platform. That made me realize how little I understand certain complex issues such as the economy and our global military presence. So I gave up for now. Maybe later.

Until I can take over with my new party, I guess I’ll just do what I’ve always done and vote for whichever candidate gets the closest to my views overall, or whichever one agrees with me on my top priority issues. For the last two presidential elections, my top priority has been getting our troops out of Iraq. Thanks to Obama, that finally happened this month.

If you’re a misfit voter, how do you decide whom to support?

National Popular Vote

Have you noticed how presidential candidates don’t really campaign much around Texas? Or California? Or New York? Yet they spend much of their time, attention, and money on Florida and Missouri and Ohio? The reason is simple: cost-benefit. Some states lean heavily toward one party or the other for Presidential races. Others are battleground states that could go either way. Candidates don’t need to waste much time campaigning in states where the outcome is already set. By extension, they don’t need to worry much about the concerns of those states, either. One pundit predicts that in next year’s Presidential election, only 7-14 states will actually matter.

Maybe this sounds good to you, but it sounds terrible to me. It means that if you live in a state that reliably votes for one party or the other for President, like Texas does, your vote doesn’t count. Something about it just doesn’t sound like a representative government. I believe the President should represent all Americans, not just those who live in battleground states. I think the election process should be very simple: whoever gets the most votes wins, just like in every election for every other office in the country. But as you probably know, it doesn’t work that way thanks to the Electoral College.

But that could be changing soon.

The National Popular Vote movement aims to work around the current, flawed Electoral College. It’s remarkably simple and doesn’t require a Constitutional amendment or any other action by our perpetually deadlocked Congress. It involves a compact among participating states, known as HB-1498 in Texas, that automatically awards the state’s electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the nationwide popular vote. Nice and easy, eh?

To make the change, states that hold at least 270 electoral votes must sign on the compact. Currently, they are about halfway there. Texas is not participating yet, but I used the link on the National Popular Vote website to urge my state representatives to support the bill. I hope you will do the same. Perhaps by next November, we can get this thing changed and make every vote count.