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Published June 16, 2011 in Persuasion by Michael Cloud
"America is becoming more and more uncivil," said a well-known public figure.
"We must return to civility if we hope to restore honest political discourse," said another.
"Political debates are becoming ruder and more heated," said a third.
Do these people truly want more civility? Or do they want servility?
Let's examine servility first.
Servility is slavish or submissive utterances or behavior. Cringing or yielding. Usually exhibited by social inferiors to their "betters."
Servility poisons a free exchange of ideas. For true communication is possible only between equals. Servility is the trait of obedient servants, not free and independent men and women.
When public figures demand that "ordinary citizens" stop bickering, that the "common people" shut up, sit down, and listen to those in charge -- they are demanding that we be obedient, submissive, and servile.
When I hear this demand for servility, I civilly respond, "No." (Though I think: "Like hell I will." Or: "Try and make me.")
Civility is polite or courteous utterances or behavior. Good manners. The act of showing regard or respect for another.
Civility is necessary for open and honest discussions. Especially when we disagree.
Yes, it is far easier to be civil when we agree.
But it is far more powerful to be civil when we disagree. Because civility lets us reach and persuade those who have not chosen sides. And it keeps people focused on the issue, rather than our behavior.
It is harder to strongly disagree while remaining civil. Even more so to raise the issue of lying or hypocrisy or dishonesty.
How do you strongly criticize a government official while remaining civil? And do it in a way that persuades others?
1. Give a specific, undeniable example of the person's lie or hypocrisy or dishonesty. Especially a written or recorded example in the person's own words.
"On June 3rd, you gave a speech to public school teachers in Arlington. Your speech is on YouTube. Here's word-for-word what you said: 'We have to get more money for public schools. We need to pay teachers more.' But tonight, you're telling us that you will cut taxes and spending."
OR: "You filled out the VoteSmart candidate questionnaire last month. You said you will vote to keep U.S. troops stable in Afghanistan and Iraq for the foreseeable future. Yet tonight, you are telling us that you want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq."
2. OR give a specific, undeniable, fact that contradicts or conflicts with what the speaker said. "Congressman X, the Congressional Budget Office did a study of the costs of your health care bill. They found it will cost $900 billion over 10 years. Plus it will directly cost an ADDED $500 billion for the 10.1 million Americans who can afford medical insurance, but choose NOT to buy it -- by legally forcing them to buy medical insurance. That's $1.4
trillion in ADDED taxes. Tonight you're telling us that your health care bill won't costs us the $1.4 trillion."
3. Then tell the person your reaction to the facts and contradictions -- in first-person, civil terms.
* "You made one political promise in Arlington and the opposite promise here. I don't see how I can believe your promises. I can't trust you."
* "You said one thing to VoteSmart -- and the opposite to us. You've lost my trust."
* "You tried to explain away your diametrically opposed positions tonight. And it became clear to me that I can't trust you."
* "After seeing your YouTube speech and listening to you tonight, I can't believe you or trust you or count on you."
* "Mr. Congressman, we did NOT come here to listen to you. You give speeches all the time. We listen to you again and again. I came here for YOU to listen to me. For YOU to listen to the other people here. I came here to tell you that I oppose this health care or bailout or stimulus bill -- and any others like it. Unless you vote 'no', I will vote against you this election. What's more, I will convince co-workers, family, friends, and neighbors to vote against you. We are NOT a special interest. But if you vote FOR the bill, we are 20 votes against you."
* "Senator, I did NOT come here to debate you. I came here to tell you, in person, that I oppose the bill -- and any bill like it. This is no minor issue for me. It's a deal breaker. If you vote for it, I will vote against you this November. And I will persuade my family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors to vote against you. Twenty votes."
When you speak from your belief, your trust, and your vote -- you are civil. You will reach other people in the audience. You will inspire others to think and feel and act like you. During the meeting. Later, with their friends. And on election day.
Michael Cloud is author of the acclaimed book Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion, available exclusively from the Advocates.