What Eye Contact — And Dogs — Can Teach Us About Civility In Politics : It's All Politics Don't look at me! In Minnesota, lawmakers are banned from making eye contact during debate. The idea is it leads to more civility. But does it? And what can animal science teach us about it?
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What Eye Contact — And Dogs — Can Teach Us About Civility In Politics

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What Eye Contact — And Dogs — Can Teach Us About Civility In Politics

What Eye Contact — And Dogs — Can Teach Us About Civility In Politics

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As fierce as the debate over Iran has been, there are certain limits. U.S. senators, for example, are not supposed to personally insult each other on the Senate floor. In reality, lawmakers sometimes give speeches to a floor that is empty anyway. The Minnesota state Senate has a special rule. If you're a Minnesota state senator, you are forbidden from looking any other senator in the eye during floor debate. It's meant to encourage civility. But does that work? NPR's Ailsa Chang looks that question in the eye.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Republican Warren Limmer sits in the second row of the Minnesota state Senate. More than 80 percent of his colleagues sit behind him. But he doesn't dare turn around to look at them when he gets up to speak because he might get scolded.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you been called out?

SENATOR WARREN LIMMER: Yes, yes it has.

CHANG: And what did you do?

LIMMER: Then my cadence is thrown off. I have to beg forgiveness to the Senate president. And then I'll get a slight admonishment. And then, I can proceed.

CHANG: Minnesota Senate Rule 36.8 requires that all remarks during debate be addressed to the Senate president at the front of the chamber. It's been on the books forever, and it's actually a rule most state legislatures have. Even the U.S. Senate has it. But Minnesota, known for its Minnesota nice, takes it one step further. When Senator Tom Bakk became majority leader two years ago, he interpreted the rule to mean senators cannot even look at each other during debate.

SENATOR TOM BAKK: Going through the president forces people to listen rather than watch facial expressions and look at each other, which sometimes I think kind of inflames some of the rhetoric going back and forth.

CHANG: Bakk says the rule elevates decorum because eye contact can make people more aggressive. And if you want proof he's right, he says consider the unruly Minnesota state House, which doesn't have the rule.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The motion prevails. The House stands.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Yelling) Are you kidding me, Mr. Speaker? This is outrageous.

CHANG: OK, so where did this rule come from?

(SOUNDBITE OF BRITISH ANTHEM, "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN")

CHANG: England. The rule dates back to the 1500s in the House of Commons, same with rules banning swords in the chamber. The idea was lawmakers shouldn't come ready to fight each other. When debate isn't personal, it's orderly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Yelling) Order. Order. Order.

CHANG: But, as you probably know, that's not exactly the British Parliament's reputation today. It's a place where members have called each other crooks, drunks and stupid cows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Yelling) You're a miserable pipsqueak of a...

CHANG: In Ireland, they have similar rules. And it can get even worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL GOGARTY: With all due respect, in the most unparliamentary language, f*** you, Deputy Stagg, f*** you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Excuse...

GOGARTY: I apologize now for my use of unparliamentary language.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Deputy Gogarty, that is most unparliamentary language.

GOGARTY: It is most unparliamentary language, and I now...

CHANG: So how can the very system that came up with the rule against getting personal degenerate so completely? I called up Peverill Squire, a historian of legislative etiquette at the University of Missouri.

Are they looking at each other in the eye when things get this personal?

PEVERILL SQUIRE: They're looking at each other from across a divide.

CHANG: They're facing each other.

SQUIRE: Yes.

CHANG: So maybe the Minnesotans were onto something. Maybe there is something inherently confrontational about eye contact. But what does science have to say about that?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

CHANG: There's a common perception that looking a dog in the eye can make it uncomfortable. That would bolster the Minnesota theory. But dog behavioral expert Clive Wynne says it's more complicated than that.

CLIVE WYNNE: The dog that's wagging its tail happily while it looks another dog in the eyes maybe is communicating something friendly, whereas a dog that growls and has its hackles raised in a very tense body posture, the eye contact may just intensify that threat.

CHANG: In other words, eye contact for dogs is like eye contact for humans. When there's genuine goodwill, eye contact can be great. So what can people learn from dogs?

WYNNE: What would be good advice for a legislature would be to encourage positive, friendly eye contact and discourage more aggressive, intimidating forms of eye contact. What we found worked very well with dogs is small pieces of summer sausage. I don't know whether that could be applied here.

CHANG: Which maybe raises the question, how much summer sausage would it take to get Republicans and Democrats to work together? Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

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