Two very different people are on my mind as I consider the problem of a lack of civility in our political discourse today: U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (DFL-MN) and Mr. Erik Prince, Founder of the Blackwater USA Corporation. The two are very different: one a wealthy, middle-aged white male who is an advisor to President Trump. The other is a young, naturalized citizen of color, and one of the first two Muslim women elected to the United States House of Representatives. Yet, both of these individuals are controversial figures who have been subject to intimidation and efforts to silence their voices in recent weeks. Their experiences demonstrate the deteriorating state of American political discourse.
Mr. Prince was scheduled to speak at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisc. on March 27. Student protestors shut down his speech before it began by stacking chairs on the stage and the podium to block his passage, banging drums and shouting. Photographs of the scene show students standing in front of the stage holding banners, one of which reads, “Erik Prince = War Criminal.”Beloit officials cancelled the speech.
Representative Omar was the subject of a tweet by President Trump on Friday, April 12. Similar to a cover photo and headline in the New York Post,the tweet appeared to connect Representative Omar to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Representative Omar reported that she is getting more death threats after the tweet and Speaker Nancy Pelosi took steps to increase Representative Omar’s security.
Neither Prince nor Omar are strangers to controversy. As a government contractor providing security to American diplomats working in Iraq in the 2000s, Blackwater USA was implicated in a number of scandals, including arms smuggling and fraud.Representative Omar has been criticized for making comments some believe are anti-Semiticand most recently, for describing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as “some people did something.”This phrase appeared in a speech where she noted that Muslims feared their loss of civil liberties in the years after the attack. Their detractors believe that Mr. Prince and Representative Omar earned criticism for their words or deeds. Indeed, holding people in power accountable – whether they wield economic power or political power – is a treasured responsibility of citizenship. The First Amendment protects both Prince and Omar from government retaliation for their words; however, it does not protect them from criticism.
Yet in both cases, critics overstepped and did so in ways that show the lack of civility in American political discourse today. The student protesters at Beloit College kept Mr. Prince from speaking as an invited guest to the college. Similarly, those who issued death threats against Representative Omar were not just taking issue with her words; they were trying to intimidate her into silence. Moreover, the use of invective and name-calling dehumanizes and demonizes Mr. Prince and Representative Omar, rendering them unidimensional caricatures. Finally, uncivil behavior further undermines the public’s faith in American institutions, be they our government agencies or institutions of higher education.
Let me be clear: I think questioning Mr. Prince about Blackwater’s practices and alleged illegalities in Iraq is completely appropriate. I also think that Representative Omar’s characterization of the Sept. 11 attack, even when her words are taken in their full context, downplayed the horrific nature of the attacks and ignored the enduring pain and scars Americans bear as a result.
What would a civil response look like? In the words of my friend Gene Policinski of the Freedom Forum, “The solution to the problems of free speech is more speech.” In this vein, the students of Beloit College had several options that they did not exercise. They could have protested inside or outside the lecture hall without blocking Mr. Prince’s access to the room or the podium. They could have listened politely to his speech and asked pointed questions afterwards about Blackwater’s practices. They could have boycotted the speech and encouraged their colleagues to do the same. They could have held a competing event in which they discussed their criticisms of Blackwater. However, they should have allowed the speech to go on.
Likewise, individuals and mediacould have criticized Representative Omar’s comments without posting an emotionally provocative video or photograph. Her detractors could have expressed their disagreement without threatening violence. They could have asked for a clarification, explanation, apology and/or retraction without impugning her patriotism or inciting violence. Or they could have ignored her altogether.
What can we do? First I think that all of us, but especially opinion leaders, elected officials, journalists and educators need to call out and condemn uncivil behavior and educate the public on its consequences. Second, I think citizens, and especially opinion leaders, elected officials, journalists and educators need to model civil discourse, including civil disagreement. Civility or “Midwestern nice” doesn’t mean that people don’t disagree – ardently and fervently. Rather, they can disagree while recognizing the essential humanity of those who espouse opinions other than our own.
As the 19th-Century British philosopher John Stuart Mill notes in his essay On Liberty of Thought and Discussion,one cannot fully understand one’s own opinions until s/he has heard and considered the contrary opinions. Moreover, every opinion, be it the prevailing or minority opinion, holds some grain of truth. Silencing those with whom we disagree denies us these advantages of free exchange of ideas.
Listening to, and considering, the opinions of those with whom we disagree is a responsibility of citizenship. Doing so civilly is a responsibility of humankind.
Karen M. Kedrowski is Director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center on Women and Politics and Professor of Political Science at Iowa State University. Her interests include understanding the relationship between media and politics and promoting civic engagement among young Americans.
Civility in communications is the focus of the 2019 Greenlee Summit, Sept. 5 and 6 at Iowa State University. For more information and to register, visit: https://alumni.greenlee.iastate.edu/2019-summit/.
Jeremy Bauer-Wolf, “Another Speaker Shut Down.” Inside Higher Education. March 29, 2019.https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/03/29/beloit-cancels-erik-prince-talk-after-student-protests.
Sahsa Ingber. “’New York Post’ Denounced For Publishing Sept. 11 Photo with Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Words.Aprill 12, 2019. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/04/12/712643034/new-york-post-denounced-for-publishing-sept-11-photo-with-rep-ilhan-omar-words.
William Cummings, “’This is Endangering Lives’: Ilhan Omar Claims Spike in Death Treats After Trump Tweet.” USA Today. April 14, 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/14/nancy-pelosi-security-concern-ilhan-omar-donald-trump/3467004002/.
Maddy Sauer and Megan Churchmach. “Scandal-Ridden Blackwater Changes Name: Controversial Security Firm Attempts to Rebrand Itself.” ABC News. January 30, 2009. https://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/Blackwater/story?id=6873331&page=1.
William Cummings, “Rep. Ilhan Oman responds to House Committee Chair’s Charge of ‘Vile, Anti-Semitic Slur.’” USA Today. March 3, 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/03/03/ilhan-omar-accused-anti-semitic-remark-israel-criticism/3048379002/
Cummings, April 14, 2019.