“Don’t make that face or it will freeze that way”. This phrase is just one of many maternal maxims that inspired us to be kind, clean our plates, and sit up straight when we were young. Although the likelihood of it actually happening seemed remote, we all intuitively understood that we would not want to go through life with our faces frozen “that way”. For some, it was the first lesson in being civil to others.
Civility, or the lack of it, is very much in the news these days, and with good reason. The recent health care legislation has sparked reactions which are notable for their vitriol, and as usual the cable news industry has eagerly been on the scene to bring it to us in lurid color, generally to reinforce the beliefs of their particular audience.
Some point to our distant political past, with its numerous examples of uncivil behavior, and ask: what’s so different about political discourse today? The answers lie in the advent of new forms of media, the ability to profitably segment audiences, and the ancient human urge to be right all the time. It is far more comfortable for the average person to be in the right rather than to be in doubt, and as it turns out, certain news organizations can rake in the advertising dollars telling the left or right that every policy question of the day is a grave moral issue.
The internet also has changed the dynamics of debate. It is easier to be obnoxious to someone when you’re posting on the web than when you’re standing in front of them. People who think their politics represent all that is right and good in America generally see those with different views not as citizens, but as enemies. And as we can see on TV every night, when emotions are enflamed certain people can quickly descend into comic hyperbole at best, or dangerous advocacy at worst.
Civility is national glue. It enables us to discuss, disagree, and push for the best outcome while maintaining our composure and respect for others. Civility requires that we have energy to listen, patience to seek out other viewpoints, and occasionally, the personal courage to say “you’re right – I hadn’t thought of it that way”. Civility is not a lack of passion, principal, or decisiveness. Civility is not something we find only on the right, on the left, or in the middle – it is something we find in ourselves. The irony is that the people who are most emotional about their point of view are often the least able to convince others. We are more inclined to buy something of value from a composed salesperson who listens than from the obnoxious salesperson who runs down the competition.
The same can be true in the marketplace of ideas. One of the problems we have today however is that many people have chosen sides, identify with a tribe, and have lost the personal freedom to break with the orthodoxy of the group. Jim Leach, the current Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (neh.gov) has added an interesting voice to this discussion.
Leach, a historian and former Republican congressman, has launched a 50 state “Civility Tour” where he seeks to elevate this discussion and, as he said in a speech delivered at the National Press Club last November, “…to make clear that coarseness in public manners can jeopardize social cohesion”. Leach has already made his stop in Wisconsin (Madison, this past February), and is using his role at the NEH to argue how a sense of history and an appreciation for other points of view are critical factors in great leadership and great citizenship.
As he pointed out in the speech at the National Press Club, attitudes harden when political dialogue doesn’t rise above “name calling in the kindergarten of life” – a phrase I wish I had thought of myself. Right now, the topic of civility is in the forefront because of the health care legislation, but if today’s adolescent behavior is primarily coming from some on the right, it was only a couple of years ago when it was coming from some on the left.
Perhaps we would all be well served to remember some of those old maternal maxims, treat people the way we would wish to be treated, listen twice as much as we talk, and remember that civility – like charity – begins at home.
Published April 2010.