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July 16, 2004

why civility really matters

Diana Mutz and Byron Reeves have conducted fascinating experiments that demonstrate the serious effects of rudeness in our televised politics. (See "Videomalaise Revisited: Effects of Television Incivility on Political Trust," Journalism and Mass Communication Educator" Spring 2004, 59/1; not yet online.)

Some people (notably Hibbing and Theiss-Morse) have argued that Americans dislike disagreement and see it as unnecessary. Therefore, if our political system involves great debates about matters of substance and principle, many Americans will tune it out, just as they forbid discussions of politics and religion in their own homes. If this is true, it's bad news indeed.

Others have argued that a generally negative tone in news coverage and political advertising has turned people off--not only made them less trusting, but also dissuaded them from voting. This would be bad news, too, since we need hard-hitting investigative journalism and tough criticism of incumbents.

Mutz and Reeves develop a third thesis that I find generally more hopeful. They exposed people to videotaped debates (conducted by actors) that were identical in substance--point by point--but that differed in civility. In one debate, the actors introduced their comments with deferential and polite remarks, appeared to listen, and didn't interrupt; in the other, they used insults and rude facial expressions to demonstrate contempt. (Their behavior was well within the normal range for television shows, by the way.)

Viewers of the uncivil debates expressed considerably less trust in politicians and government after watching. Physiological instruments showed that they were emotionally aroused by what they saw. Viewers of the civil debate were less aroused and more positive toward the political system.

The authors assert that we react to behavior on television as we would to similar behavior by real people in our living rooms. Rudeness comes across as aggression and triggers very powerful and basic responses.

So why is there so much rudeness in televised politics? Wouldn't it pay to be polite, if you're a politician or a cable-news host? Unfortunately, participants in the experiment rated the uncivil debate as considerably more entertaining than the civil one, and said that they would be more likely to watch the same show again. Rude behavior lowers respect for politics and civic engagement, but it entertains.

That's a conundrum, but there's at least a ray of hope. Politicians have an interest in sustaining public support for the political system. Perhaps liberals need this support more than conservatives do, but even most conservatives don't like to be part of a loathed profession and institution. Therefore, while news hosts and producers will always promote conflict and incivility, politicians should think of their professional self-interest and act politely.

It's also possible, although Mutz and Reeves didn't test this hypothesis, that citizens trust individual politicians whom they perceive to be polite; that would create an incentive for civility. If I were a politician, I would care a little about the ratings of the shows on which I appeared, but much more about how viewers perceived me and my profession. I'd make sure to be extremely polite.

By the way, I'm not a big proponent of politeness or civility for its own sake. I take a much tougher view of what it means to be "civic." But this article suggests that civility matters to the health of our democracy.

Posted by peterlevine at 11:45 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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