At the launch of the presidential races last fall, the candidates pledged to avoid the negative campaigning that has so alienated voters. But by February, those promises were cast aside amid the all-too-typical stream of vicious personal attacks and partisan sniping.

None of this was any surprise to a panel of academics and others who have been examining the nation's public life: They have concluded that intense conflicts have characterized public life from the American Revolution to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But the panel believes that while confrontation is inevitable, it needn't drown out discussion of the issues, as has happened increasingly. What is needed, the panel says, is to develop a more effective, more civil "public discourse."

"Incivility is nothing new," says psychologist Judith Rodin, PhD, president of the University of Pennsylvania and a prime mover in the establishment of the Penn Commission on Society, Culture and Community. "It's really a continuation of behaviors that have always been with us but have more impact now because they are more observable," she says. "The economics of the media have really transformed the opportunity for and, indeed, the promotion of incivility, because it sells well."

Commission executive director Stephen Steinberg, PhD, a philosopher, says the reason why rudeness, meanness and lack of respect in public discourse appear to have worsened so much is that incivility "used to be surrounded by a lot of good conversations."

"Those have declined," says Steinberg, "and the incivility in essence has become more apparent." The commission, he says, does not want "to throw a wet blanket on debate and confrontation, and is not trying to say, 'Let's be nice.'

"We're saying that what's really important...is to find ways for people to engage substantively in a kind of robust conversation about things that matter to them."

The commission was launched in December 1996, with two purposes:

  • To investigate the causes of what Rodin called "increased polarization and intolerance," and

  • To generate ideas on how to foster "a more robust and diverse public discourse" in which a wide range of groups participate.

Rodin is joined on the commission by three other psychologists among its 48 members: Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, former APA president and professor at the University of Pennsylvania; Mari Fitzduff, PhD, director of the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity in Northern Ireland; and Claude Steele, PhD, professor at Stanford University. Other members include sociologists, historians, political scientists, political consultants and former elected officials.

The commission is not using any one definition of incivility, noting that incivility comes in many forms and that one person's definition of incivility may be another person's legitimately shouting to be heard. While the commission's primary focus is on the United States, discussions have included guests from other countries, and associate director William Boltz, PhD, a political scientist, says that some of the panel's eventual proposals may be applicable abroad.

A range of institutions, Rodin says, among them universities, block associations and community service organizations, can serve as vehicles where people can debate issues passionately yet seriously and responsibly. Some organizations, says Boltz, already do that by asking a variety of ethnic and other groups to help set policy by joining in "conversations" with each other; other institutions draw together a variety of communities to work on a common goal.

Unlike most commissions, the Penn Commission was not set up to issue a final report and then go out of existence. It intends to develop, and to help establish, models of "effective public discourse" that can counteract the incivility the public sees so much in the media.

The commission's final plenary meeting took place in November, but it received funding that will enable it to operate through June 2001. Plans are being developed, says Steinberg, to form a national coalition of associations, universities and cultural institutions that will create a network of venues where productive public debates can take place on controversial issues. At the same time, the commission will seek to train a cadre of people in all walks of life who can lead such "conversations."

Incivility: a product of rapid social change

Rodin says the country has experienced a "deteriorated public discourse" that has brought nasty debates over such issues as abortion rights, affirmative action and immigration. This deterioration, the commission said in a paper, dates back at least 30 years, with cultural conflict escalating from the "rapid social change" of the '60s and '70s to the culture wars of the '80s to the political alienation and ideological polarization of the '90s.

But the answer, Rodin says, is not to try to get everyone to agree, or to attempt the impossible task of eliminating incivility from the public arena.

"What we need to get is more argumentative and more engaged public discourse, but in a way in which people are prepared to listen to each other...where you become ready to be convinced by someone else's point of view," she says.

The problem, says commission member Mari Fitzduff of Northern Ireland, is often with people who insist on seeing "the other as the enemy" and who cannot cope with others whose beliefs differ from their own. "In Northern Ireland, it's expressed through stone-throwing and murder," says Fitzduff. "In the U.S., there are dialogues that do not take place and people who cannot hear each other."

On some issues, says Fitzduff, people have to say, "Let's agree to disagree."

She has seen that type of listening and acceptance at small private debates between Republicans and Unionists in Northern Ireland as well as between pro-life and pro-choice adherents in the United States. But that doesn't happen, she says, in larger, public debates where antagonists try to score points rather than seek common ground and disagreements are exaggerated. In a public debate, where the media are often present, opponents are encouraged to emphasize their differences.

Solutions to incivility

One way to lessen conflict is to encourage quarreling groups to work on common goals, says Fitzduff. Pro-life and pro-choice forces, for example, can come together on preventing unwanted pregnancies, while pro- and anti-gun control groups might cooperate on keeping guns out of children's hands.

"They have to focus on the goals, as opposed to the way to get there," says Fitzduff, "because it's the way to get there that they often disagree on." The United States, says Fitzduff, is fortunate in that there are many cross-cutting divisions here.

"There is safety in a lot of divisions," says Fitzduff. "For instance, you'll get black people who are pro-choice and pro-life. A lot of cross-cutting interests actually militates against the absolute cleavages you have in Israel, Ireland and South Africa."

Still, she says, U.S. conflicts make for a "very noisy and uncomfortable community," one which can become increasingly "frazzled" if new ways aren't developed to debate contentious issues.

Seligman says that the commission's discussions have pointed up a range of forms of incivility, from racial tensions in the United States on up to major conflagrations in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. Those discussions stimulated Seligman and Fitzduff to help organize the 1998 ethnopolitical warfare conference in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, co-sponsored by the APA and the Canadian Psychological Association (Monitor, Aug. 1998).

The conference led to the creation of the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the University of Pennsylvania's psychology department. The center's goal is to develop a postgraduate curriculum and training program to prepare psychologists to work on research and prevention of ethnopolitical warfare. Last summer, 18 psychologists enrolled in the center's first 10-week course.

Seligman says that examining places where tensions led to ethnic warfare has reinforced his optimism that U.S. conflicts can be resolved, despite the incivility here that the Penn Commission is concerned about.

"There are bumps along the way," Seligman says, "but I want to distinguish the local bumps from the general envelope of progress, particularly when you compare this country to the Balkans or Northern Ireland or Central Africa or Indonesia."

Peter Freiberg is a writer in Miami Beach, Fla.