Moving from Shrill Debates to Consensus: “Political Charity”

Cass Sunstein is a constitutional law scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago. He takes a strong interest in how debates are evolving in new media. He observes that people frequently separate themselves into distinct online camps, drive off people who don’t conform, and vilify the opposition. This is a poor way to achieve a broadly satisfactory consensus. Alan Jacobs discusses Sunstein’s ideas in Books & Culture:

The relevance of this idea to the blogosphere is pretty obvious. On a website dedicated to supporting the policies of President Bush, a commenter who despises the president either doesn’t show up at all or, if she decides to take a flier, finds her views—along with her personality, her character, her intelligence, and her friends, family members, and pets—instantly subjected to a barrage of, shall we say, critical scrutiny. Such a person is likely to get the message and flee into the welcoming, consoling arms of Kos or Atrios. And of course the mirror image of this scene is enacted on the left-wing blogs. With the dissenters driven away, the Faithful who remain reinforce and, as Sunstein says, amplify one another’s views, with the result that the community of that blog becomes more monolithic and more extreme…

…a potential antidote…is political charity.

Sunstein’s discussion of this subject seems to have begun with his claim that in the aftermath of the midterm Congressional elections in 2006 President Bush and Rick Santorum—who had just been defeated by Bob Casey in his attempt to be re-elected as a Senator from Pennsylvania—behaved graciously in defeat, giving credit of various kinds to their opponents:

“Santorum’s concession speech was, in its way, quite remarkable. Showing no trace of bitterness, he began by praising Bob Casey, saying that he was a fine man and that he would do a fine job for Pennsylvania. He specifically asked his supporters to give a round of applause to Casey, and when the applause was tepid, he added, spontaneously and with evident sincerity, ‘Come on, give it up, give him a round of applause!'”…

In a later post Sunstein spells out the key components of political charity:

“Three practices seem to constitute political charity. First, those who display political charity do not question the motives of those with whom they disagree. On the contrary, they cast those motives in the best possible light. (Consider imaginable discussions of the Iraq War or affirmative action.) Second, those who display political charity try to endorse the deepest moral commitments of those with whom they disagree. If they cannot endorse those commitments, at least they show respect for them. (Consider imaginable discussions of same-sex marriage and climate change.) Third, those who display political charity try for reforms and innovations that can be accepted by people who reject or even abhor what they take (fear?) to be the defining commitments of the reformers and innovators. That is, a central goal of those who display political charity is to obtain agreements on practices amidst disagreement or uncertainty about what, precisely, accounts for those practices. (Considerable imaginable discussions of increases in the minimum wage, energy independence, or health care reform.)”

See also:

The Virtue of Civility: Bringing depth, respectfulness and integrity back to our national discourse

New York Times: Whatever Happened to Online Etiquette?

Abuse and Threats Drive Women Out of Online Participation (explicit language)

Firestorm Rages Over Issue of Civility in the Blogosphere

George Will: Anger Is All The Rage

Sex-Positive Debate-Killing Tactics Stretch into Their Fifth Decade

King and Queen of MoPornNorthampton Savagery Do Freelance Work for Republican, MassLive (explicit language)