Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Civility Metrics: What Can Be Done About Toxic Political Climate

In the wake of Tucson, James Besser of The Jewish Week interviewed me for his article Jewish Leaders Seem Absent About Toxic Political Climate. He was spot on in his analysis.

We don't know whether that climate of vitriol and hate had anything to do with this massacre. We also know that extremism comes in all colors and political leanings (although Besser elsewhere makes a solid case that all incitement is not created equal - see "Political incitement on the airwaves: Not a balanced equation").

The Jewish Council on Public Affairs recently issued a Statement on Civility, an admirable first step. Other faith groups are responding as well. A Christian group led by Pastor Jim Wallace has created a Civility Covenant, signed originally by over a hundred Christian clergy of diverse denominations.

We had a nice discussion about this topic last night at our "Learning and Latte" monthly interfaith conversation, which had Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu representation. We discovered much common ground on the need to address this issue actively and to go beyond petitions and pretty covenants. The huge turnout at John Stewart's recent Rally to Restore Sanity(and /or fear) is another indicator that people are ready for more substantive action.

Just as several Jewish groups have recently established new certification standards for ethical behavior in the production of food (including the Conservative movement's brand new and highly commendable Magen Tzedek symbol), it’s clear that we also need measurable and verifiable certification standards for civility. This would extend to politicians and the media. Jewish groups routinely call for more civility, but these calls fall on deaf ears because they are seen as agenda driven (e.g. when the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center issues a statement, it is seen, however worthy, as being biased toward a liberal perspective). So we need to meet that with something more objective – a watchdog group monitoring the use of inflammatory language on all sides and calling people out on it.

Rabbis can take the lead on this. Judaism calls on us to “Seek peace and pursue it.” We’re not very good at the “pursue it” part. Theoretically, ethical behavior in the public square is something the religious streams can agree on and unite to combat. Resolutions and petitions are a beginning. But the situation has become so acute that we need much more – outright condemnations accompanied by a scarlet letter of shame for those who incite.

Remember the quaint old days when we argued over violence on TV and the need for a "V-Chip" to filter out excessive violence and sex? When it comes to anger, violence and incivility, we've gone way beyond restricting what's accessible on TV at this point. Hate is so easily available everywhere: online of course, with a national addiction to violent video games and cyberbullying, and also on line, at the bank, at the gas station and at the supermarket (or as we from Massachusetts say, in line). Anger is everywhere.

It's time to quantify civility. Much as we give politicians numerical ratings on their votes on other issues, we should give them objective ratings on hate. So just as the NRA will give someone a score on gun control legislation and AIPAC will let us know how they are voting on Israel, let's score everyone on civility - and not just politicians, but media folk too. A formula can be created, much as Sabermetrics does to rate baseball and football players and teams (my personal favorite is Football Outsiders - created by Aaron Schatz, a Boston bred, Brown educated rabbi's son, who tells us this week on a Jewish podcast which team Jews should root for - the Patriots, of course).

The metrics might include how often the person uses certain code words in speeches, terms that tend to incite and anger, expressions like, say, "blood libel,"( which along with Holocaust terminology, is used all too often and by Jews and Gentiles of all viewpoints) or inaccuracies, like calling someone a terrorist when the person has never advocated murdering innocent civilians. I'd say it would count as a negative if military terminology is used regarding political opponents, expressions like "wipe him out" or "put him in the cross hairs." I'm sure some objective standard could be created and out of that a rating for all to see. For some it will be a Good Housekeeping seal and for others a scarlet letter. Some will be praised for their insight, others will be shunned when they incite.

We need a seal to assure that our political discourse is strictly Kosher.

In Besser's article I refer to the Jewish community's vigorous (and necessary) need to gain wide consensus in the defense of Israel. But that legitimate concern for a big tent has had its costs. At the AIPAC Policy Conference, which I recommend to all, perhaps the highlight of the event is the roll call of political leaders who are considered Israel supporters. It is impressive. But wouldn't it be great if AIPAC, in addition to listing their scores on Israel, would give us access as well to the politician's civility rating. This isn't just about AIPAC of course, but all interest groups - and especially faith based ones, the ones who supposedly answer to a higher authority on moral behavior.

It has proven time and again that to "go negative" in politics is not only advantageous, it is the only way. It worked last November, more than ever. even as the public was disgusted by it. Only a concrete and strong response will disincentivize politicians and media personalities from continuing to incite anger and hate. Petitions will not do it. Strong statements will not do it.

A scarlet letter might. The response needs to be overwhelming. There needs to be a blanket intolerance of intolerance. We've changed the culture before. If we could make smoking and littering uncool, maybe we can make slander uncool as well.

Imagine, at your next political fundraiser:

"We introduce Senator X, who scored an impressive 98 from the Oil Lobby and an amazing 84 from PETA. But, oh, I'm sorry to say he got only a grade of 38 on civility...."

Civility metrics could be a game changer.

1 comment:

David said...

This morning, while musing on the continued reporting of the tradegy in Tuscon, it came to me that a 'candidate civility rating' might become a strong mechanism for promoting better political discourse. So, I googled 'civility rating' to see if it already existed. I don't think it does, but you've suggested it. So, what do we do next? My initial thought is that such ratings should be generated by a group formed for that purpose only, so I don't think AIPAC is the best choice. But somebody needs to pursue this. I think it may need to be us. Are you in?