Thursday, January 29, 2009

Civil Discourse Defended (Ethan & Micah are Wrong)

Recently, Ethan Millard's SLCSPIN and Micah Bruner's DeathKnell have published blog articles critical of a recent call for "civil discourse" in a Salt Lake Tribune editorial. I respectfully disagree with both Ethan and Micah on this issue.

In the case of Micah, I believe that he is misreading the article due to the fact that he was primed to do so by first reading Ethan's blog alleging that the call represented an effort to "coerce" civil discourse. In the case of Ethan, I believe that he is misreading the intentions of the vast majority of people in and out of office who call for civil discourse, because he sees such efforts as being an attempt by public officials to "escape questions and conversations that may be uncomfortable for them."

I personally have never heard nor read of any effort to "coerce civil discourse" by anyone accused of so doing by Ethan, and I see nothing in the Tribune editorial as advocating such. In my opinion, the people who could rightfully feel targeted and insulted by the paper's call for civility are the very political officials serving in the Legislature that Ethan believes want to deflect scrutiny by issuing the said call themselves. And, what I suspect is causing the perception difference between myself, and at least Micah, concerning the issue of legislatively coercing civility is the following line from the article:

". . . From passing well-crafted laws to shrinking Utah's religious divide to making sure people of all races, ethnicities, religions, ages, incomes, political parties and physical abilities are heard and represented. . . ."

From what he has written in the comment section of his blog, I suspect that Micah is interpreting this line as being a call for the Legislature to pass well-crafted laws mandating civil conduct in the future. But, my reading of it (in context) persuades me that, far from advocating future legislation to coerce civility from the public, it is actually the Tribune criticizing the Legislature for allegedly contributing to the current culture of incivility by making the following mistakes in the past:

  1. Passing poorly crafted laws and contributing to the religious divide. (I see this as being a reference to Utah's supposedly oppressive liquor laws, or anything else that appears to favor the Mormon majority at the expense of everyone else.)

  2. Preventing people of all races, ethnicities, religions, ages, incomes, political parties and physical abilities from being heard and represented. (Again, I see this as being a jab at the practice of the Republican delegation of holding closed caucus meetings where the real work supposedly gets done out of the public view, or government officials allegedly meeting with the Mormon Brethren to obtain their marching orders.)

Because I am a conservative, white, male, Mormon, Republican, I am not too critical of the Legislature. I feel represented well. But, some folks at the Tribune and elsewhere seem to have another opinion, believing that the Legislature has helped to cultivate the current climate of incivility by its alleged misbehavior. Thus, that is how I interpret this particular line from the editorial.

The authors apparently believe, beyond the general need for all of us to be more civil, that the Legislature should also embrace this call by making itself more friendly to diverse views. I do not agree, necessarily, with everything the Tribune would endorse along those lines. But, I will certainly defend that paper against any accusation that its call for civil discourse is actually an attempt to shield public servants from scrutiny. (Not that Ethan is attacking the paper as much as he is attacking in broad terms the call for civil discourse.) The Tribune is in the business of providing thorn-in-the-side scrutiny. I do not believe that it now seeks to do otherwise.

In the opinion of many of us who routinely call for such, civil discourse is actually the key to increasing scrutiny of public officials. Too often in our world, too many of us try to pass off hit and run insults and accusations as political commentary and analysis. For me, a call for civility is not an attempt to muzzle tough questions, but rather a call for even more questions, more thoughtfully asked, more responsibly answered, and more objectively reported.

I feel very strongly about this issue. I hope that Ethan and Micah (two of my favorite and most respected bloggers) will reconsider their attack on this call for civil discourse. And, I praise all those who are nobly seeking to promote civility within our community.



At Friday, January 30, 2009 12:51:00 AM, Blogger Jason The said...

Ethan's points are not to be brushed off so easily though.

It is fairly common for a person, elected or "civilian", to feign indignation and superiority to a certain line of questioning -- usually prefaced with a call for "civil discourse" -- when in fact their only intention is to duck from the questioning itself.

I can see both sides of this, but from elected officials, I'm more inclined to the "can't take the heat, out of the kitchen" school of thought. If your skin is so thin you can't handle a little incivility to defend your own integrity, you're probably not that effective in your position.

At Monday, February 02, 2009 3:29:00 PM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...


I am wrong so often that I usually do the opposite of what I think should be done - just to save time. However, in this instance, I have to stick to my guns.

We agree that civility is of utmost importance in public debate. We also agree that people should generally be given the opportunity to hang themselves with their own rope. So, while I respect your position, I cannot agree with your interpretation of the Tribune's comments.

Perhaps the fact that you are misreading the article hinges on your general desire to find the best in people. A truly admirable quality - one that I need to work on attaining.

Your proposed reading "in context" is exactly the opposite. The quote is as follows:

"We support the efforts of Kesler and his nonprofit Salt Lake Center for Engaging Community to get people to think about how incivility reflects negatively on individuals and groups and how it hinders them from getting things done that need to get done. From passing well-crafted laws to shrinking Utah's religious divide to making sure people of all races, ethnicities, religions, ages, incomes, political parties and physical abilities are heard and represented."

The first sentence is a general statement of support for Kesler's group's efforts to get people to reflect on how incivility generally fails to persuade.

The second sentence can only be read as a list of those efforts Kesler's group has engaged in to further their ideal of "civil discourse by all." These are the efforts the Tribune supports.

Civil discourse is an admirable concept. We should strive to be more civil in all that we do. I am far from perfect, but when I get behind the wheel, I criticize others as if I had no flaw whatsoever. Often my rants at other drivers cause my children to simply laugh at their dad being a goofball. This puts into perspective my antics and makes me reflect on my behavior. In turn I try very hard to be civil while behind the wheel.

In public discourse, we often see people flying off the handle at those who disagree with them. I agree with Ethan that nothing should prevent us from being able to ask difficult questions. What is needed, however, are well crafted questions that point out the perceived deficiencies in the actions of our elected leaders. If they, in turn, simply dismiss us as lacking civility, the onus is on them to prove incivility. If we demand answers in a ridiculous manner, we have proven ourselves to be lacking civility and they can easily dismiss us.

However, the Tribune's call to arms should be dismissed insofar as it supports legislation requiring "civil" discourse due to the fact that civility is an approach that is hard to define. Ethan's fears, coupled with mine, I believe are that those who support the Tribune's call for legislation could impair speech rights that are protected by the First Amendment. Such legislation would likely end up in a lengthy and costly court battle that, more likely than not, would end up with some infringement on our rights.

As I stated above, I agree with you in your position that we should conduct ourselves at all times acting civilly toward another. When approached with hostility and a raucous tone, civility will demonstrate our own level-headedness.

However, to mandate "civility" through legislation and other government measures is a slippery slope leading us to an abridgment of rights.

I appreciate and agree with your overall point. We simply disagree on what the Tribune was attempting to do.


At Monday, February 02, 2009 10:53:00 PM, Blogger Alienated Wannabe said...

Dear Jason and Micah,

Thank you very much for posting your comments to my blog. I appreciate it very much.

You both deserve thoughtful replies, but I don't have time to supply such at the moment. So, for now, I will resort to simply rude incivility:

You could not be more wrong!

Did your mothers birth any children free of crack addiction?

Is Ethan really anti-family, or is he just pro-gay?


At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 10:14:00 AM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...


Thank you for providing evidence to the point that a well-crafted political position will leave its opponents stammering for a response that just doesn't exist.


At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 11:44:00 AM, Blogger Alienated Wannabe said...

Dear Micah,

Why do I feel like you are trying to coerce incivility out of me, counselor? (Stinking ambulance chaser!) Please, just set your crack pipe down for a moment and focus:

Why on Earth would the organization that employs Paul Rolly, Rebecca Walsh, and Glen Warchol call upon the Legislature to pass laws imposing civil conduct, all for the purpose of shielding public officials from having to answer tough questions? Even you, the president of Ethanaholics Anonymous, should be able to see how utterly ridiculous is this "spin" placed upon the Trib's call for civility.

Whether that editorial was written by a journalist or a capitalist, he or she would still have the same agenda -- sell newspapers. Do you really believe that people who want to sell newspapers would voluntarily call upon government officials to hamstring them by limiting their First Amendment rights? Do you really believe that they would endorse Mr. Kessler's efforts if they believed that he was seeking to do this in anyway?

No, obviously not.

The author(s) of the Tribune Editorial clearly had something else in mind. But, what was it? Well, if it's not a call for the Legislature to statutorily impose civility upon us all, do you think it might be a call for all of us -- including the Legislature -- to voluntarily conduct ourselves more civilly?

Yes, that does sound more reasonable doesn't it? See how well a crack-free brain works when given the chance?


P.S. Did you really type "well-crafted" . . . "stammering?" C'mon bro! In the immortal words of the Incredible Hulk: "Don't make me uncivil, you won't like me when I'm uncivil!"

P.P.S. This was written in a spirit of humor. Micah is my friend and we are giving each other a bad time.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 12:43:00 PM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...


The funny thing is that even when you are uncivil you are still civil. While your sarcastic and overbearing retort is well received, I cannot help but question how much you read the Tribune.

The Tribune's editorial page and columnists love the idea of government intervention. Further, they hate our legislature. Thus, by pushing for "well-crafted laws" they get government intervention that binds the legislature they hate so much.

This is, in effect, not only a call for government mandated imposition of "rules of public debate," but also affirmative action for public discourse.

Still, personal attacks aside, we agree that people should be more civil. So in the end, we are fighting over semantics and you are damaging your own credibility (what little you have left you cartoon faced malcontent) by name-calling.


At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 1:50:00 PM, Blogger Alienated Wannabe said...

Okay, Micah, My Dear Friend,

You are right: By having so much fun being uncivil, I am actually undermining my claims to seek greater civility.

And, you are right: I have no credibility anyway.

But, for the sake of doing the right thing, let's see if we can't clean up our act just a little bit:

I think we are coming at this editorial from completely different angles. And, our respective trajectories are so different, that we cannot well understand one another. So, before going any farther, why don't we first identify the common ground that we do share:

1. We both believe that people should voluntarily choose to be civil.

2. Neither of us believe that the government should be in the business of forcing people to be civil.

3. Neither of us share the politics of the most prominent Tribune columnists. (I don't know Jay Drew's politics, so I am not counting him. But, he did grow-up a Utah fan, and that can't be good.)

4. Neither of us subscribe to the so-called Fairness Doctrine where media outlets broadcasting over the public airways are legally required to provide both Republican and Democrat view points.

5. Neither of us were crack babies, and to the best of our knowledge and recollection, none of us have ever used said substance in our lives. And, if we did, we definitely did not inhale. That was not the point!

6. Neither of us is addicted to either SLCSPIN nor its owner, one Ethan, legendary, anti-hero, populist, libertarian, angry young man, charging the Bastille, manning the barricades, blogger, kind of guy, Millard.

Can we agree upon these things so far?


P.S. I started out pretty well, but I kind of fell apart there toward the end. No wonder I can't get certain people to return my email messages.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 1:51:00 PM, Blogger Alienated Wannabe said...

". . . you cartoon faced malcontent."

Yes, I loved that.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 1:56:00 PM, Blogger Alienated Wannabe said...

I forgot to include, "manning the guillotine," in my list of Millardian identifiers.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 5:16:00 PM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...


You are right. It is merely a different interpretation of what the Tribune article is calling for.

I understand and can see your perspective. I simply disagree with it, as you do mine.

There is little point spending more time trying to persuade each other. We'll simply have to agree to disagree on what the Tribune is calling for.

Always a pleasure,

At Thursday, February 10, 2011 9:04:00 AM, Blogger Bill Hawthorne said...

Dear Alienated Wannabe,

My name is Bill Hawthorne and I am a political blogger. Just had a question about your blog and couldn’t find an email—please get back to me as soon as you can (barbaraobrien(at)



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