Personal attacks in politics are a mirror of a society's slide toward social incivility. How can civility be restored? The topic is attracting interest.
As the race for president heats up, so, too, do the words of candidates and their supporters. The latest extreme examples? A Dallas pastor who is a Rick Perry supporter denies Mitt Romney is a Christian while labor leader James Hoffa threateningly calls on Democrats to “take out” Republicans.
Fortunately, this kind of incivility – the rudeness, personal attacks, and prejudice – is attracting more attention. Researchers, pollsters, and others are studying the effects of vitriolic rhetoric on democracy and looking for ways to promote civility in society.
After US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot last January by a deranged man, the University of Arizona in Tucson set up a National Institute for Civil Discourse. It hopes to become a “counterweight to the dominant business and media model of our age which attracts an audience by catering to existing fears and beliefs, rather than challenging them.”
Next month, the University of Iowa in Iowa City is holding a two-day program on finding “the line” between conflict and civility in politics. Last year, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that about 80 percent of American adults say a “lack of civil or respectful discourse in our political system” is a “somewhat serious” or “very serious” problem.
Individuals are speaking up, too.