Civility is one of those things that in theory you want, until you see how it is used in practice. Civility is widely used as a weapon by those in power to suppress dissent and the consideration of alternates and other perspectives. Disagreeing with those in power is often cast as being "disrespectful of their professionalism" or of their office. Appeals to civility are used to squash protests that a meeting is being manipulated, and to prevent people from making timely responds to ad hominem attacks.
The issue of civility has come to the forefront in the City Council election with the Weekly's endorsement of Cory Wolbach who highlights restoring civility in his speeches (their discussion). Several other candidates are making lesser statements about improving civility. Then there are the candidates who are talking about the need to change the culture at City Hall, and they are being told that they are being uncivil for focusing so much on on-going problems rather than what has been accomplished. And this is also relevant to the School Board contest.
This blog post is to encourage a discussion (here and elsewhere) of this issue both in general terms and relative to the specific candidates. General discussion of the pros and cons of the candidates is off-topic. I know that it will be hard to refrain from advocacy for votes for individual candidates, but please try.
My concern about advocates of civility is not just those that would use it as a weapon against others, but those who are naïve and are easily manipulated into allowing it to be used it as a weapon. I am constantly amazed by how many Palo Altans involved in civic affairs and politics refuse to recognize obvious bullying. One diagnosis is that has some observable validity is that some/many of such people have various degrees of aversion to conflict, and appeals to civility are a shield they use to justify not standing up to the bullies.
I have encountered many Palo Altans that choose to believe that "we are all reasonable people", and that instances of incivility are merely aberrations, and that a quiet, private conversation is all it takes to remedy the situation. When you ask such people what they would do if the offender refuses to mend his ways, the answer is that you should keep trying, and they refuse to allow that there are situations where this will fail. My experience is that this attitude guarantees that the bullies and other abusers will triumph. There is the perverse situation where there are those who will not stand-up against the bullies but will condemn those that do as uncivil.
Anticipating arguments that Palo Altans are not that easily bullied, I can tell you that in my experience as a neighborhood leader I saw many of my neighbors walk out of meetings furious at the way they were being treated. More said that they wouldn't go to subsequent meetings: The conduct of the meeting made it clear that their input was unwelcome and a waste of time.
"What's past is prologue" ? Shakespeare (The Tempest)
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it (foot#1)
Some choose to view the contention surrounding Maybell project as an isolated occurrence and that we should just move past it. However, it was the culmination of many years of similar problems. For example, the bullying of residents who were raising questions and concerns about that project was layered on top of the bullying of residents raising concerns about the Arastradero Restriping plan?raise a question about it and you would be denounced as someone who wanted to drive 50 mph on Arastradero and didn't care about the safety of children. (foot#2) To illustrate how long-running this situation has been, I have reproduced below the 2007 version of opinion piece about civility being used as a weapon.
If one is concerned about actually promoting a more civil discourse, one needs to look at the history of the various issues to understand the motivations, the dynamics and the key players. For example, affordable housing is one of several issues where for many of the advocates it goes beyond ideology to being treated with near religious fervor. Not surprisingly some of those advocates are quick to demonize anyone who simply raises questions about their proposals.
Learning the lessons of the past is not just important to avoid your stepping into known traps, but into maneuvering to give a wide berth to those traps so that others are less like to trigger them. Leadership is not just about not avoiding these problems yourself, but actively trying to prevent those problems from re-occurring. To reestablish civility, a leader needs to reestablish trust that people will be treated fairly and be protected. What sort of leader is it that dismisses people's concerns that are well-founded in past experience? One that indicates that that leader will do nothing to protect them, and may even facilitate continuing abuses.
Getting the candidates to talk about the history of these events not only reveals whether they have the knowledge needed to move things forward, but also reveals how they would deal with future instances, and whether they have the experience to deal with the complexity, ambiguities and hard decisions of these situations. (foot#3)
If you try to get a candidate to talk about this sort of history and the candidate declines, saying that "he doesn't want to engage in finger-pointing", what does this say about what the candidate would do if elected?
Civility: Style and Substance
When you are talking with someone about civility, try to figure out whether they are simply talking about style, or if they also include substance. It continues to amaze me how many Palo Altans think of civility only in terms of the phrasing of what is said?that it is civil to utter the most outrageous falsehood or make the most craven accusation as long as the language used is polite.
I come from a very different background, one that values substance over style. It is often necessary to forgo polite language in order to get people treated fairly and with respect. My training for leading meetings is that they need to be open, fair and honest. If incivility is needed to achieve that, so be it.
Civility run amok: Lies are bad ... so don't you dare point them out
(This is a lightly annotated version of an opinion piece written in summer 2007 that was part of a series, The Palo Alto Process: A culture of bad decision-making that had evolved from talking points and shorter comments going back to roughly 2000 )
The proper role of civility in debates is to keep the focus on the issues?the facts, tradeoffs and priorities?and keep personalities out. However, in the Palo Alto process, a perverse version of civility is too often used to thwart reasoned, fact-based consideration of issues by protecting the falsehoods proffered by favored parties.
For example, several years ago, I was involved in an issue(foot#4) where the presentation by the leading advocate included a phantom $6 million a year of benefits. This was not an inadvertent mistake?during earlier presentations to other groups, this error had been pointed out, and he had acknowledged it, multiple times, yet it stayed in the presentation. When I spoke later in the Council meeting, I focused on the inadequate financial analysis, and cited the $6 million/year as "a previous speaker" being "confused" about the numbers . When I finished, the then-Mayor launched into an extended admonishment directed at me about "personal attacks." Neither I nor multiple other people at the meeting could figure out how I had crossed the line. I asked the then-Mayor and he told me "People could figure it out." Message received: Better for the City to squander millions of taxpayer dollars than risk having an insider be briefly embarrassed for an attempted deception.
More commonly, pointing out falsehoods simply gets you ignored. Council members claim they must treat speakers "with respect" as a rationale for not challenging even outrageous falsehoods. For example, consider the developer who didn't want to test his property for likely insecticide contamination.(foot#5) His consultant testified that there couldn't be "pesticides" in the soil, otherwise they would have killed the grass and trees ("pesticides" can be taken to include herbicides when plants are classified as "pests"). Council nodded politely and took no action.
Council routinely allows developers to supply implausible numbers to avoid paying for some impacts of their projects, thereby shifting those costs onto the taxpayers. Take the developer who wanted to overbuild a site next to an already congested intersection(foot#6) but didn't want to pay for traffic improvements. He proposed 177 housing units and R&D space for 140-200 employees. His consultant stated that this would generate only 87 trips during the morning peak. Council didn't question the methodology or otherwise show skepticism. Apparently, it would have been "disrespectful"?it would have suggested the consultant was so unprofessional as to skew the data in favor of his client.
Another approach used by housing developers to avoid paying for impacts is to claim that very few of the occupants will have children (children cause additional car trips, need space to play?). And the City accepts such claims, despite experience after experience after experience.
The latest example is the not-yet-complete housing at the former Hyatt Rickeys (now Arbor Real) which has already produced a flood of children into the schools. Again, is it worth millions of taxpayer dollars for Council to avoid the unpleasantness of having to question, and reject, such claims?
Every now and then a Council member is so appalled by the falsehoods that s/he will ask a question indicating that s/he is not being deceived. However, this rarely receives any support from other Council members, and thus goes nowhere. And asking more than the infrequent inconvenient question garners the visible displeasure of other Council members.
True civility requires making choices: Council's policy of "showing respect" for all speakers and their "facts" represents an impossibility. When you accord the same "respect" and apparent weight to a concocted "fact" as you do to painstakingly conducted, careful research, you are actually displaying contempt for the latter.
Falsehoods are not the only area where "civility" is used as an excuse to avoid taking action against abuse of the process: It means acquiescing to bullies, provided that they are powerful or otherwise well-connected. For example, one (outgoing circa 2007) Council member routinely grossly distorts the statements and concerns of ordinary residents for the purpose of ridiculing and trivializing them. And her colleagues say and do nothing. Preserving the thin veneer of pseudo-"civility" is more important than treating the underlying rot in the process.
In other cultures, "damning with faint praise" may be an appropriate way to express opposition, but in this country it is often misunderstood, and occasionally deliberately exploited. Yet, Council continues to engage in this practice, despite being burned. I don't want to even think how much this "civility" has cost the taxpayers in bad decisions.(foot#7)
If the guiding principle is "Everyone is entitled to their own facts",(foot#8) is it any surprise that Council decisions are so often dismissed as simply raw politics, the exercise of influence by established special interests or the ability of advocates to pack the Council Chamber with supporters?
For the next City Council, we need members who believe that their first priority is making good decisions for the City, not going along to get along. Actual facts and logic are critical to delineating the options and the tradeoffs, with the role of politics being how those choices are prioritized.
---- Footnotes ----
1. A widely used variation on "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" by George Santayana.
2. I am one such person. I was one of several people who tried to point out that the traffic lane configuration at the crossing to Terman Middle School encouraged speeding. When one gets denounced for not caring about the safety of children for trying to improve the safety of a crosswalk at a school, is there any question that this isn't bullying?
3. My front row seat to the debate on the Maybell project was in my role as manager of the Barron Park Association's email discussion lists. I live on the opposite side of the neighborhood and had decided to take no position on the project to facilitate being a more effective referee on the lists (that the project was going to be highly controversial emerged in the first public outreach meeting in Sept 2012).
Some of my experience promoting civility came from decades of managing a variety of email lists.
My introduction to the difficulties in maintaining civility came from involvement in politics while in college and graduate school in the 1970s. I had to deal not only with the normally contentious academics, but ideologues and bullies of both the Left and the Right: multiple antagonistic varieties of Marxists, Young Americans for Freedom ?
4. The so-called Environmental Services Center which was a trash sorting and transfer station that the advocates want to build in the Baylands and rent to Waste Management Inc, which was then Palo Alto's incumbent trash collector. (more info from my personal archive).
5. The site had been a tree care company before the area became part of Palo Alto and reportedly there had been many minor spills and possibly some major ones.
6. 195 Page Mill, between Park Blvd and the Caltrain tracks. The congestion is the backup on Park for the on-ramp to Oregon Expressway.
7. This referred to a practice where projects would come before Council for a preview, and Council member would praise many aspects of the project. The developer would understandably take this as approval for the course he was taking. A year or so later, the developer would come back for final approval and Council members would express strong disapproval of significant aspects of the project but then approve it anyway, saying that it was unfair to the developer to have to make major changes (to what Council members were purportedly thinking but not saying during the preview).
8. A perversion of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan admonition "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."
Palo Alto Online Election Central
Midpeninsula Community Media Center: Election Coverage: videos including forums
Campaign Websites (alphabetically)
Palo Alto City Council
?A. C. Johnston
?Mark Weiss (part of his general blogging site)
Unaware of website for Wayne Douglass.
Palo Alto Unified School District
?Jay Blas Jacob Cabrera
?Catherine Crystal Foster
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.