(Un)Civil Discourse: A collaboration with Boulder Weekly

Courtesy Boulder Weekly

This article is presented in partnership with Boulder Weekly

“This year’s election brought forth ugly tactics uncommon to Boulder,” read the prompt in the Daily Camera, inviting three members of its editorial advisory board to weigh in. 

Two compared campaign rhetoric and strategies to the dystopian world of Mad Max and the fantastical destruction of Tolkien’s Middle Earth by non-humans. The third opined that politics are always full of mud-slinging; the only thing you can do, she argued, was get a better shovel.

Those opinions seemed to reflect the way many Boulderites felt about the 2021 election, at least those who were paying attention. This year’s contests produced plenty to turn folks off, from campaign complaints to defaced voter guides and a defamation lawsuit.

Depending on who you ask, this year either represented a new low for Boulder politics or a turning point in who we as a society hold accountable — and for what. 

Leaked messages, dark money

Alleged incivility was not limited to one candidate, campaign, or issue — all three citizen ballot measures were a hot mess of fear-mongering, Next Door arguing and material tampering — but the majority of debate over decorum stemmed primarily from one place: Safer Boulder and member/city council candidate Steven Rosenblum. 

Messages from the group’s Slack workspace were leaked by an anonymous group in September 2020 — more than a year before the election. The leaks were later reported by Boulder Weekly, in collaboration with Boulder Beat.

Shortly after Rosenblum announced his candidacy, Boulder Progressives drew attention to them with a blog post and email to followers that circulated among a (very insular, very small) group of politically involved residents on Twitter. 

The post included several screenshots of leaked messages and characterized their contents as “dehumanizing language . . . transphobic, racist and violent rhetoric against members of the homeless population,” calling on readers “to both support and volunteer for progressive candidates who approach all issues with care and empathy.”

Boulder Progressives backed four candidates running against Rosenblum, three of whom were elected to Boulder city council. Rosenblum finished eighth of 10 candidates, earning 13,309 votes.

Rosenblum was among the first to call for civility on the campaign trail. During an August 25 candidate forum hosted by the Boulder Chamber, he denounced unspecified “smear attacks, false allegations and hit-and-run defamations” against him. 

He would later file a lawsuit over these posts, sharing his planned cease-and-desist directly with the Daily Camera and Boulder Weekly a week before submitting them to the court.

Read: Better Boulder members compelled to testify in Rosenblum defamation case. Boulder Weekly

The allegations were also aired on social media, including the full text of the (eventual) legal filing. Commenters raged about the Progressives’ actions. 

Like many, former city councilwoman Jan Burton felt that the Progressives were “crossing the line” by honing in on Rosenblum’s behavior.

Though she acknowledges they didn’t write anything untrue — Rosenblum has admitted to authoring some of the leaked posts, and his lawsuit similarly does not deny their veracity — Burton feels that discourse should focus on pumping up their candidates, not tearing others down.

“I’ve always preferred to focus on the qualities of your own candidates and the issues they believe in, rather than going against other candidates,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I got picked on so badly in 2017.”

That was another particularly contentious election, with two growth-focused issues on the ballot. Burton in particular was targeted by false claims that she supported building skyscrapers in Boulder’s neighborhoods and accusing her — and other candidates and groups — of using “dark money” to fund her campaign.

Neither of those tactics are uncommon to Boulder. Groups opposed to various developments continue to circulate images of sky-high structures blocking out views of the Flatirons. And, despite a 2018 overhaul to the city’s campaign finance rules, the dark money claim was once again trotted out this year: this time by Forward Boulder, a group backing Rosenblum and three other candidates.

“There is no dark money,” Burton said. They were resorting to fear, which had been done in the 2017 election. That is totally unnecessary.”

Power move or political piracy?

Claims of dark money may be old, this year’s election saw something new — at least to Boulder: Political actors sitting on websites and social media accounts with the names of their opponents.

In his lawsuit, Rosenblum alleged that steverosenblumforboulder.com and @steveforboulder on Twitter were set up by Eric Budd, a member of The Coalition, which backed four of Rosenblum’s opponents. The website redirected to a blog containing the Safer Boulder leaks; the Twitter account included a link to the leaks as well.

Budd, along with other defendants, declined to comment.

Other campaigns were impacted as well. Forward Boulder also reported a fake Facebook account, and No on Bedroom$ — which opposed a ballot measure to loosen city rules on unrelated adults living together — was forced to change its name after a domain with their first choice, People For Real Housing Affordability, was registered by someone else.

The Daily Camera’s opinion editor bemoaned the “vengeful electioneering tactics” as the “trickling down” of “toxic politics at the national level” into Boulder.

Domain hijacking, as it’s sometimes called, is increasingly common on the national level — enough that outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have written about the practice. 

Depending on the day (and the target), it’s either venerated as a savvy political strategy — the Post called it a “prescient purchase” — or a low-down, dirty trick.

The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, as their name might suggest, believes that “bad-faith” registrations and redirects contribute to misinformation and confusion among voters. (CADNA did not respond to a request for comment.)

The Electronic Frontier Foundation defends the practice as a form of political activism, protected under the First Amendment

“The registration of domain names and the choice of where to direct them is speech protected by the First Amendment,” a spokesperson wrote in response to emailed questions.

Mayor Penfield Tate II, center, sits with other members of the 1974 city council. (City of Boulder archives)

Same game, new tools

As dates on the above articles (2010 and 2016, respectively) show, domain hijacking is not exactly a new tactic. But it may be new in Boulder, which perhaps helps contribute to the perception that things are getting worse.

There’s not really evidence to support that — indeed, some past elections make today’s political arena seem tame by comparison.

WARNING: The following paragraphs contain racist and homophic comments that some readers may find disturbing.

Penfield Tate II, Boulder’s first and only Black mayor, had it particularly bad when he proposed an anti-discrimination clause that would protect LGBTQ residents. Tate was subject to racist attacks and death threats, including many calls to his home.

“There is no reason in the world why Boulder ought to have a [Black] mayor,” Tate recounted in a 1974 interview (the main source for this excellent history of Tate by The Bold CU). “We’re gonna get him. I don’t like him and besides that he sucks cocks.”

Councilman Tim Fuller — who along with Tate was subject to a recall election but, unlike Tate, was unseated — recalled finding bullet holes in his VW bus and numerous occasions where boxes of animal feces were left by his front door. He was shouted at, spat on, and had “paper wads” thrown at him when entering council chambers.

Rhetoric around the anti-discrimination law itself was similarly inflamed. Opponents — regular residents of Boulder — lined up by the hundreds to decry how it would open the doors to child molesters, “porno pushers,” and “sex peverts,” turning the city into “a sex deviant mecca.”

“Boulder would be renamed ‘Lesbian Homoville,’” twice-failed council candidate Hilma Skinner was quoted as saying in a 1974 Daily Camera article

“Political campaigning has always used deception, emotion, it’s always sought to inflame certain types of supporters as a way of stimulating involvement,” said Toby Hopp, a professor at CU-Boulder who researches incivility.

“The use of lies or hyperbole or other forms of manipulation have been around for a very long time. There’s examples of Ben Franklin writing a fake news publication in order to draw the French into the Revolutionary War.” 

What’s changed, Hopp said, is the tools used to get those messages out.

“Most people who communicate online aren’t uncivil on social and digital media. One person can make a single uncivil post, and the scalability of that one single message is different than it was before. 

“There’s an argument that the scalability of media and social networks can result in historically aberrant negative outcomes.”

History of weaponization

One of the most central questions when studying incivility is also the hardest to answer. What is it? 

Is it name-calling? Criticizing a candidate’s words or actions? Tampering with voting guides? Suing to stop the spread of information? Writing an op-ed about someone — or a group of someones — without first getting their side of the story? Refusing to meet with someone whose actions you dislike? 

Everybody, it seems, has their own definition — one that largely depends on who’s in the driver’s seat and who is on the receiving end.

According to the research, Kopp said, “We’re more forgiving of normally unacceptable behavior when they come from members of our in-group relative to when they come from members of our outgroup.

That’s why this topic is fraught with issues, on the research level. We’re 25 years in, but we’re still arguing over the definition of this particular social construct, because it does seem so conditional and contextual.”

The other problem with civility is who it’s historically been used against. Time and again, said Dawn Walton, we see calls for civility deployed against marginalized groups fighting for their rights or full place in society

Martin Luther King Jr., “the most accepted civil rights leader” in U.S. history, was called uncivil, as were the peaceful protestors who sat at lunch counters or in the front seats of buses. Today, they are lauded as heroes.

Going back even further, abolitionists were blamed for dividing the country over the issue of slavery. Author Alex Zamalin, in his book Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility, argues that calls for civility and unity have been used ever since to combat social change. 

Walton, a Niwot resident, educator, and consultant on the issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, recommends Zamalin’s book as a prerequisite for anyone engaging in issues of civility.

“There’s nothing inherently harmful about being civil,” Walton said. But “if you truly want to be educated about this and why people don’t trust it — even though the dictionary version of the word is neutral — you have to be able to have some historical context.

“If you don’t want the historical context, I cannot trust that you actually want to be civil.”

The pledge

That context is being considered more in recent years, with the rising awareness about racism and inequality generally. NPR examined the concept on an episode of its podcast, Code Switch, which focuses on how society is impacted by race.

At the same time — perhaps unsurprisingly, in the eyes of Walton and Zamalin — there has been a parallel national hand-wringing over division and the degradation of public discourse. 

Yet it’s hard to argue against the need for some agreed-upon norms when members of congress compare their Muslim peers to suicide bombers and the man who just spent four years in the Oval Office had a history of openly mocking and insulting people with disabilities, Mexican-Americans, women, and pretty much anyone who disagreed with or criticized him.

Locally, elected officials have rewritten rules for speaking at public meetings, hoping to tamp down on the personal attacks and harsh language that impassioned residents of Boulder have long deployed on controversial issues. 

There’s only so much they can do to curb citizen speech, which is protected by the First Amendment. But setting the expectations — and modeling polite disagreement with each other — is important, said councilman Mark Wallach.

“We should be setting that example,” he said. “If we’re going to be leaders, one of the things we ought to be leading on is how we deal with each other on the issues.”

In 2019, he and councilman Bob Yates co-sponsored a simple civility pledge and circulated it among the candidates. It had but three conditions:

  • I will not say, write, or imply disparaging or untrue things about my fellow city council candidates.
  • I will discourage those who support me from doing so.
  • If I see such things in the community, I will notify the affected candidate. 

There wasn’t a formal signing-on, but everyone running for office that year agreed. It was a peaceful political cycle, at least compared to the ones before and after it.

A study by Hopp and fellow CU professor Chris Vargo, using the 2012 presidential race as a case study, found that campaign language affected how private citizens interacted with one another online. The more negative the rhetoric from official channels, in other words, the nastier regular folks are to each other.

“When certain types of people” — politicians, members of the press, celebrities; people with influence, in other words — “normalize certain types of language, we see it enter into the everyday conversations of normal people,” Hopp said.

Score one for civility pledges.

There are limits to their power, however. As Wallach noted, candidates in this year’s election were perfectly pleasant to one another. That didn’t stop the public from sniping away at each other on social media or plastering neighborhoods with misinformation.

I was inappropriately optimistic that we could avoid some of what’s going on in the rest of the country,” Wallach lamented. “We may do it on a narrower spectrum of liberal to progressive, but it doesn’t make it any less toxic.”

Flyers opposing Steve Rosenblum’s candidacy were distributed throughout the city during election season. A link and QR code directed readers to the Safer Leaks blog.

‘The height of hypocrisy’

This year, a proposed pledge itself became a source of alleged incivility, from all sides.

The “civil discourse campaign pledge” differed from its predecessor in a couple ways. It wasn’t designed by the candidates themselves, but by a cross-aisle group of Better Boulder and PLAN-Boulder County leaders. It also attempted to go further in defining the limits of acceptable debate.

  • We will make ideas and feelings known without disrespecting the opinions of others.
  • We will stay focused on debate over the issues.
  • We will refrain from attacks on individuals or organizations that impugn their character or motivation.

Beyond the language of the pledge itself, the timing was different. It was released to candidates around the same time the Boulder Progressives sent their missive about Rosenblum and Safer Boulder. 

While Burton, one of the authors, said that was coincidental, some candidates didn’t see it that way. The language and the timing felt like a directive to not discuss Safer Boulder, Rosenblum or the leaked messages, said Dan Williams, the only one of four Boulder Progressive-endorsed candidates that did not earn a seat on city council.

“We had one candidate that was part of a group that literally joked about running homeless people down with their cars, or having mountain lions eat them, or beating them with baseball bats by the creek. That’s disgusting,” Williams said. “To say that it’s fine for one of the 10 candidates for city council to participate with Safer Boulder, who said the most unbelievably cruel things about unhoused people, and that none of us could criticize that,” as he felt the pledge required, “that was the height of hypocrisy. I couldn’t get behind that.”

Williams and others flagged their concerns to the group pushing the pledge, highlighting the historically racist nature of such agreements. Williams went further, proposing his own version that, in his eyes, retained requirements about honesty but gave greater room to comment on current local events.

Instead, the pledge was pulled without further discussion. Soon after, Wallach was lamenting candidates’ refusal to sign the pledge on the pages of the Daily Camera. The paper’s opinion editor weighed in, too, writing that there was “no excuse” not to sign.

That is uncivil, Williams said. Although it was technically true that some candidates didn’t want to sign the first pledge, it is an incomplete truth. Wallach also declined Williams’ request to meet and discuss the issue.

Wallach did meet with Nicole Speer, another objector, after she was elected alongside him. Despite the discussion, Wallach still did not see a strong case against civility pledges.

“I don’t see the argument against it,” he said. “I thought it was a fairly simple and innocuous thing to do. I don’t think it has any impact on robust and even heated conversation. 

“The intent is not to hamstring people’s ability to communicate, or to be strong and vociferous in the manner in which they do so. How does reserving the right to express yourself in abusive terms forward your objective of convincing the community of the correctness of your views?”

‘Sword and shield’

That’s the other tricky thing about incivility: Anyone can claim it or claim to be victims of it.

“Claims of incivility can actually be a sword and a shield,” Kopp said. “They protect you from being criticized and allow you, being an uncivil actor, to perpetuate and implement some sort of program of dehumanization.”

What, then, do we do with civility as a concept? Abandon it altogether in favor of equity and accountability? Continue to apply it selectively, to our preferred parties? How do we sort through what is uncivil and what is merely uncomfortable?

It’s important to keep in mind what civility is and isn’t, Kopp said. It’s not a blank check to say anything you want.

“Certain types of claims or people ought to be met with incivility. If we’re going to have a public sphere, that doesn’t police itself. We have to interrogate what is acceptable, what is unacceptable and why.

“People who do research tend to think about it in two ways,” Kopp continues. “Impoliteness and behaviors or communication practices that undermine democratic norms of inclusion and shut down discussion between good- faith partners. 

“I think the primary ingredient in civility is a true desire to solve a social problem in a way that is as beneficial as possible to all parties involved.”

Walton thinks it’s important to keep front-and-center the real issue at the heart of debate — for much of this election, that was the treatment of Boulder’s unhoused community. The reckoning with that speech never really happened, as the conversation moved quickly onto the ethics of the leaks.

(To be fair, Rosenblum did publicly condemn unspecified hateful comments during campaign interviews, as did Brooke Harrison and Leslie Chandler in a Boulder Weekly op-ed. “Some of the statements were abhorrent,” the pair wrote.)

That’s because we as a society “have normalized excluding” people experiencing homelessness from civil debate, Walton said. “We don’t care about alienating homeless people because they don’t have power.”

“They are not seen as legit actors in a public, democratic space,” Kopp concurred. “By stripping away those folks’ autonomy and not recognizing them as part of our community, we’re entering this rabbit hole of incivility where it becomes very difficult to make sense of things.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that more than one thing can be true at the same time, Walton said. You can support civility and still condemn speech that is dehumanizing or disempowering. If Kopp’s rule of incivility is to be followed, language that seeks to exclude certain people or groups must be condemned.

You can say it’s good to be civil, and you can also say there’s a Slack message here joking about running people over with their cars,” Walton said. “Both of those things can be true at the same time. There’s no real inherent conflicts about those things.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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