Thursday, January 13, 2011

Civility: What's Not To Like?

Civility is the new black

President Barack Obama, January 12, 2011:

"And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."

Dallas's own Jeffrey Weiss has issued a call for something he calls a "National Political Civility Month" to be honored in January each year. Why just a month and not the full year? He doesn't have a good answer. Still, it's a start. What's not to like? Who could argue against civility, against simple courtesy, against motherhood and apple pie, right?

After the jump, the argument against motherhood and apple pie.

Laurie Goodstein, in The New York Times, reports that Mark DeMoss, the founder of something called the "Civility Project" is shutting down the effort for lack of public interest. In January, 2009, the project asked all governors and members of Congress to sign a simple pledge:

"I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
I will stand against incivility when I see it."

Only three signed. Three out of 585. What could possibly be objectionable in that simple pledge? How has it come to be that the kind of behavior taught in grade school classrooms is no longer considered a virtue in politics?

DeMoss thinks the "political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white" with one side seeing no redeeming value in anyone on the other side. With this attitude, civility is not equivalent to motherhood and apple pie. Civility is considered to be acceptance of the evil perceived to be on the other side. At one extreme, civility is even suspected of being a liberal trick to shut up conservatives.

"Now, we may want to have a conversation about our policies regarding the mentally ill or the need for more gun control (though I may disagree with the outcome) because, after all, they are relevant to the horrible events of the past week. But conservatives should be wary of any national dialogue about civility or any beer summit about the specter of political violence. It is nothing more than a setup."
-- David Harsanyi

Long ago, I was surprised to learn that "tolerance" is not universally considered to be a virtue. (Tolerance is imagined to be synonymous with approval - approval of gays, of Muslims, of sin.) Then, I learned that "compromise" is not universally considered to be a virtue, either. (Compromise is imagined to require a surrender of principle.) This week, I'm learning that "civility" isn't universally considered to be a virtue, either.

What I thought made American democracy great is being slowly dismantled, virtuous brick by virtuous brick. If there isn't common ground on even these innocuous virtues, on what can we build? Scary thought: maybe building on common ground isn't universally considered a virtue, either.

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