The Erosion of Civil Discourse

Monday, May 30, 2005

Anna Quindlen, in her Newsweek column of May 30, writes that among the legacies of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, is that “America has become a country that sets its young people the terrible example of closed minds. The terrorists want to kill infidels. We only aim to silence them.” Quindlen bemoans the fact that America has been “hijacked by those who cannot tell the difference between opponents and enemies, between disagreement and heresy, between discussion and destruction.”

As a country that aspires to be a constitutional democracy, this is more than just bad news. Democracy requires the type of informed consent that can only be achieved through vibrant and often tumultuous debate. Closed minds slam shut the door of civil discourse and block the path to civil society.

Oppose the war in Iraq and we become traitors. Challenge the increase in political repression and the decrease in civil liberties and we are allies of the terrorists. Call for basic human rights in the treatment of prisoners and we are soft on crime. Ask that immigrants and undocumented workers be treated fairly and we are throwing open our borders to criminals. Suggest that access to abortion is an integral part of reproductive rights for women and we become baby killers. Protest the demonization and scapegoating of gay people and we want to destroy the sanctity of marriage. Suggest that religious supremacy is toxic to pluralist democratic society and we spit in the face of God.

At the root of this problem is the wedding of dualistic demonization and moral supremacy. It’s not just the dualism of “I’m right and your wrong.” It raises the stakes to “I’m the guardian of the morality and the society that you seek to destroy for evil purposes.” That’s a box that’s hard to get out of. What sane person would debate the devil incarnate?

This paradigm is operational in both religious and secular spheres of society, from the speeches of our President and certain Congressional leaders, to the guiding lights of the Christian Right, to television talk shows, to the lack of debate on college campuses. I tend to see dualistic demonization most frequently used as a tool of the Political Right. When I see it used by the Political Left, I think it needs to be opposed as well.

If we want to preserve the idea of democratic civil society, we all need to agree to certain ground rules regarding the boundaries of acceptable civil discourse. I don’t mean good manners. Non-violent civil disobedience may be bad manners to some, but it is one of the tools democratic civil society needs to protect. I mean claiming the intent of my opponent is evil and destructive. I have no problems seeing evil in the world, nor in arguing that the outcome of certain policies would be destructive. But when any of us assumes our opponent is inherently evil and intentionally seeks to destroy all that is good–we have driven a nail through the heart of democracy.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Dissidents or Extremists?

When we lump together all political candidates and movements outside the “mainstream” as “extremists” of the left and right we are not only stifling a potentially valuable debate, but also using a theoretical model that has been seriously challenged in academia during the last 20 years. After World War II a number of scholars looked at the popular appeal of fascism and communism and concluded that mass movements threatened the stability of society. Shocked by the acquiescence of most Germans to the Nazi genocide of Jews and liquidation of other groups, these scholars saw warning signs in the Red Scare of the McCarthy Period, the Presidential campaign of ultraconservative Republican Barry Goldwater, Jr., and the Populist Party movement of the late 1800s. The scholars concluded that people swept along by social movements were psychologically-dysfunctional grumblers who couldn’t play by the rules of democracy, and instead turned to irrational behavior to make their voices heard. The idea that extremists of the left and right threatened society was a dominant frame in sociology and the other social sciences until the mid 1970s.

I was not a neutral observer. I joined the Civil Rights movement through my Presbyterian Church youth group while I was in high school in the mid 1960s. When I went to college it was clear that many young sociologists were unhappy with the idea that people who joined mass movements were psychologically dysfunctional extremists (or “wing nuts”) on the fringes of the political system. Many of us had joined these movements. An increasing number of sociologists became participant-observers of various left-wing social movements that cascaded out of the civil rights struggle: student rights, the movement against the war in Vietnam, women’s rights, the ecology movement, farm worker rights, gay rights. In part because more academics were actively involved in these movements of dissent, a new set of social movement theories emerged in sociology that looked at participants in social movements as intelligent and rational people with shared grievances. As dissident activists they sought social change through demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of mass organizing outside the boundaries of typical electoral or legislative campaigns.

Eventually I dropped out of college to be a full-time left-wing social movement participant, and spent time as a journalist in the underground/alternative media of the 1970s. I am still a progressive political activist, and it is still my job to convince you that my ideological goals are worthwhile and my policies would benefit the common good, but if I do that by unfairly labeling my opponents using stereotypes, demonization, or scapegoating, then I am cheating. These techniques are toxic to a democratic process.

As I became a serious analyst of right-wing social and political movements, I returned to scholarly analysis using sociology and social movement theory. While most of the groups and movements originally studied using this scholarly lens were on the political left, an increasing number of scholars used this lens to look at the political right. Among the early authors who studied the political right using social movement theories were Sara Diamond, Kathleen Blee, Jerome Himmelstein, and Rebecca Klatch. Now there are scores serious books on right-wing movements such as Rick Perlstein’s excellent book on the Goldwater campaign or Lisa McGirr’s illuminating study of the suburban roots of the New Right.

The picture of social movements that has emerged is complex. There are a wide range of ideologies and methodologies. Skillful leaders mobilize resources, test the political opportunities opened and closed by the state, frame ideas in ways that resonate with broader populations, and develop cultures that support and energize participants. At the same time, movement participants often ignore the proclamations of their leaders and pick and choose among various policy positions. Some movements institutionalize themselves with social movement organizations such as national headquarters, think tanks, and alternative media. Other movements never sink institutional roots and are like whirlwinds that appear suddenly in a burst of energy and dissipate leaving only memories and debris.

A central question we must ask when we look at any dissident social movement is whether it is ultimately reformist or revolutionary. We need to recognize that the First Amendment protects calls for revolution that are rhetorical and not part of an active conspiracy to overthrow the government. And we need to understand that populist reform-oriented dissident movements on the left and right are situated between revolutionary groups and mainstream electoral political movements. These are important concepts for ensuring respect for civil liberties.

All too often government agencies decide that the way to find terrorists or other protestors engaged in criminal acts is to send swarms of infiltrators and agents into dissident mass movements. This is a bad idea no matter whether the target is on the left or right. It chills free speech and disrupts constitutionally protected political activity. Labeling all dissidents as “extremists” can lead citizens into ignoring abuses of government power. Even the label “terrorist” has been overused. Vandalism is not terrorism. Non-violent civil disobedience is not terrorism. Today, if a follower of the non-violent methods used by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose to highlight a call for political reform by kneeling down to pray in the crosswalk of a busy intersection in Washington, D.C., they would fit one definition of terrorism circulated by the Justice Department.

Spin-doctors and political strategists use the term “extremism” as a hyperbolic rhetorical frame of reference to demonize their opposition by sticking labels on them. This shrill strategy shifts political debate away from a candidate’s policies, plans, goals and vision of the future—ideas that could help form the basis of informed consent for a voter in a democratic society. It also marginalizes the type of populist political dissent and creative opposition to the status quo that makes a society flexible enough to meet the challenges the future always delivers. It is time to rehabilitate dissent and reject labels that demonize dissenters and unfairly lump together all social and political movements outside the current—and temporary—political center.

Adapted from Yale Politic magazine, February 2005.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

That word: “Extremism”

The rhetoric used by some sincere and well-meaning human relations groups—”extremists of the left and right,” “religious political extremists,” “radical religious right,” etc. — can actually unintentionally undermine civil liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse by demonizing dissent and veiling the complicity we all share in institutionalized forms of oppression in our society: racism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism, Arabophobia, and Islamophobia.

In the 1960s the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at first bristled at being labeled an “extremist” by a group of clergy upset with his brand of activism. King’s response was contained in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

King wrote that he considered the label, and then realized that in their respective days, the Biblical Amos, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson had all been thought of as extremists by mainstream society. King responded, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

Two issues are raised by King’s clever reversal of the attack on him as an “extremist.”

First is that the term “extremist” has only relative meaning in terms of how far outside the “mainstream” norms of society a particular idea or act is located by some observer who claims a “centrist” position.

Second, King suggests it is important to determine whether any idea or action labelled as “extremist” defends or extends justice, equality, or democracy—or whether it defends or extends unfair power or privilege.

Ultimately, the concept of “extremism” is of little value in discussing prejudice, ethnocentrism, or the Christian Right. Sociologist Jerome Himmelstein argues the term “extremism” is at best a characterization that “tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels,” and at worst the term “paints a false picture.”

Some analysts use the term “extremism” in a way that implies that ideas and methodologies are always linked. This is not the case. We need to separate ideology from methodology. King’s ideas may have been outside the mainstream for his day, but he promoted non-violence; and while civil disobedience often involves a minor criminal act, it is not the same as an act of terrorism.

Given the way the term “extremist” is sometimes used, it can serve as a justification for state action that is repressive and undermines Constitutional guarantees. We need to use terms that are more precise.

Calling the Christian Right “extremists” tends to lump them together with members of organized hate groups. That’s a real problem, especially since most people in the Christian Right would willingly join in a coalitions to confront racist and antisemitic hate groups.

One of the reasons the term “religious political extremists” was picked, was that people tended to think the term covered everyone from conservative Christian evangelicals to armed neonazi terrorists. That’s just plain wrong. It’s time to stop using this type of language.

Adapted from Chip Berlet, (2004), “Mapping the Political Right: Gender and Race Oppression in Right-Wing Movements.” In Abby Ferber, ed, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. New York: Routledge.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Stop Labeling and Start Organizing!

More than a decade ago I sat in a conference room in Washington D.C. and was told I had to start using the phrase “religious political extremist.” This was the new way for people on the political left to frame our opponents on the political right. It made me unhappy. I already had problems with language such as “radical religious right,” “lunatic fringe,” and “wing-nut.” This new phrase just seemed wrong to me.

I’m uncomfortable when I hear people of sincere religious faith described as religious political extremists. What does that term mean? I worry that many people hear it as a term of derision that says we’re good and they’re bad. There is no topical content. It’s a label that says folks are outside the mainstream; and it lumps together leaders and followers, and blurs distinctions within the Christian Right that I think are important. Most conservative Christian evangelicals do not want to impose a theocracy on our country. I’d like to be able to talk to them about the issue of Christian dominionism within the Christian Right.

Polls show that most people in the United States do not agree with the narrow legislative agenda of the leaders of the Christian Right. Polls also show that most people think of themselves as part of an organized religion, and that as many as 100 million of our neighbors think of themselves as Christian evangelicals or “born again.” Why would an organizer start out by offending half their potential audience with language that is abrasive?

We need to challenge conservative policies as part of a progressive grassroots organizing effort based on civil and constructive dialog. The whole idea of grassroots organizing is to reach out to people who may not already think they agree with you. As a community organizer, when I heard discussions about slogans, I always asked: “What’s my next line?”

Let’s role-play. So here I am knocking on a door in Emporia, Kansas, and when the door opens I lead with “We have to stop the religious political extremists!” What’s my next line? (That’s assuming my nose wasn’t broken when the door was slammed in my face). Unless the person already agrees with me, there is no constructive next line.

I think it’s time to stop using phrases such as “religious political extremist” and “radical religious right.” A lot of my friends and allies use this language, but what are friends for if they can’t tell you when they think you are wrong? I also think that we should be asking folks in the Christian Right to stop pasting labels on those of us who are liberal or progressive. I’m an equal opportunity curmudgeon.

Over the next few days I will be expanding my arguments for this position.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Democracy is a Process

Democracy is a process that involves several components, all of which are necessary, but none of which is sufficient. This is how it works.

The majority of people,
Over time,
Given access to enough accurate information,
And the ability to participate in a free and open debate,
Reach decisions that will,
-Benefit the whole of society,
-Preserve liberty,
-Extend equality,
-Protect freedom, and
-Defend democracy.

Not all the time, and sometimes there are periods of backsliding–or much worse. And if the information is fraudulent propaganda, then the decisions are skewed. But if you don’t think this process works, then you don’t really believe in a democracy.

Democracy scares me sometimes, but that’s OK. Democracy is messy and chaotic.

The title of a recent book by sociologist Francesca Polletta on progressive social movements was titled Freedom is an Endless Meeting. That’s the joke line from 60’s civil rights activists who turned around the slogan “Freedom is an Endless Struggle”—probably while sitting in a meeting.

The point is, democracy takes work, and it is participatory or it is not real democracy.

That’s what this blog is going to talk about.