Michelle Quist Mumford: A cautionary tale of incivility

To paraphrase the title of a Jane Austen novel, we shouldn’t let our “sensibilities” overcome our good “sense” of right and wrong.

"Temple Mailer" flyer mailed out prior to the 2010 Utah Republican Convention featuring Mike Lee and Bob Bennett

I am a terrible mother.

At least that’s what I’ve been told.

I was recently at home for what I thought was going to be a slow, relaxing day. I sent my twin toddlers outside with their older brothers to supervise. You can imagine what happened next. A car horn. Short beeps first, followed by the kind of car horn blaring that wants to teach a lesson.

My older boy came inside to let me know there was a lady outside who wanted to talk to me. I’ve since tried to reconstruct the “why” of what came next, but I’ll spare you that kind of introspection. Suffice it to say that, faced with fight or flight in this instance, I was rearing for a fight.

I walked outside. Just as I feared, a lady began reprimanding me for letting my kids ride bikes in the street. Now, of course I don’t “let” my kids do that, but this wasn’t the kind of discussion that lends itself to fact-checking.

The woman asked rhetorically: Did I know that my children were riding bikes in the street? I countered with a question of my own: How fast was she going, anyway? My abrasive debate tactics took her off-guard. Under the speed limit, she assured me. Undaunted, I rebuffed her non-answer and repeated my question: But how fast? You can imagine how the tenor of our discussion descended from that point.

She told me that if she had hit my son, it would have been his own fault. I countered with my own legalistic debate point: When a car T-bones a bike, it is always the driver’s fault. Before driving off, this woman – who had really only stopped to express a shared concern for the well-being of my boys – told me I was a terrible mother.

And, in that moment, I was. Of course, the woman didn’t see how I immediately turned around to put one of my boys in timeout while lecturing the others about neighborhood bike-riding safety. It’s not like they got a pass. But she had a point. I should have done more to supervise my nascent daredevils than entrust their fate to the judgment of my slightly older, 8-year-old daredevil.

Why do I share this with you? Over the last year, I’ve noticed an increased emphasis on the importance of “civility” in our public discourse. In the sphere of political commentary, the discussion often turns to the latest outrage involving President Trump’s ignorant tweets or his confrontational, immature style. But I want to make two points that come down on both sides of the state of affairs I have observed.

President Donald Trump's Twitter page with his tweets about not recording his conversations with former FBI Director James Comey is photographed in Washington, Thursday, June 22, 2017. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

First, I fear that when we talk about civility, we are doing it wrong. Many conversations on civility focus on gentle manners and kind words. But civility shouldn’t neuter the authenticity of honest criticism, even if it is loud and abrasive. To paraphrase the title of a Jane Austen novel, we shouldn’t let our “sensibilities” overcome our good “sense” of right and wrong.

In this respect, I think that President Trump’s criticism of the media and news-gathering industries often makes an important point. The media, myself now included, acts as a gate-keeping function to interrupt Trump’s efforts to communicate with voters by deciding what will be covered. And distrust is legitimate when, for example, it is combined with reports of campaigns coordinating with the media to frame the conversation. Honest criticism.

Closer to home, I see a misguided debate developing in the current battle for Utah’s 3rd District Congressional seat involving the issue of negative campaigning. Negative campaigning can be a very effective tool to educate voters regarding contrasts between candidates. Until it’s not. I’ve yet to see anyone who can define the limits of such unacceptable, negative campaigning without descending into something that resembles former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement regarding community standards for obscenity laws: You know it when you see it.

This is also where I have to concede that, notwithstanding the stranger’s “incivility” in calling me a terrible mother, it was effective in forcing me to confront my own irresponsibility.

But that leads me to the second point about civility: At a certain point, incivility will self-cannibalize its own effectiveness. Utahns saw this principle in the 2010 Senate race when the infamous “temple mailer” almost crushed Sen. Mike Lee’s chances of election because delegates were repulsed by the personal and religious nature of the ad they had been misinformed came from the Lee campaign.

Trump also, who often acts outrageously solely for shock value, is a case study in how civility is self-policing. His lack of a filter and basic incomprehension of the qualities of speaking honestly and authentically have, in many instances, backfired, giving his opponents ammunition to distract from his “drain the swamp” project. We really do need to drain the swamp, but actually accomplishing anything close to reducing the size of the federal government has given way to a caricature of an embarrassing executive.

The Republican Party’s failure to repeal Obamacare last week revealed the cautionary tale of incivility, as we saw how Trump had alienated those whose votes he needed to fulfill one of the central tenets of his candidacy.

In closing, I want to reiterate the proper bounds of civility to point out that, sure, I’m a terrible mother. Who among us isn’t a terrible person at one point or another. But the fact that we can speak honestly about such matters, and practice charitable listening, is the best civility, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Michelle Quist Mumford is an editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, as well as a mother of many children, trying, and sometimes failing, to keep them safe, fed and happy. But mostly safe and fed.