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A Little Dose of Civility Would Do Us Good

My summer reading enjoyment has included a well-researched book by Lynne Cheney, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered. I was reminded that political disagreements aren’t something new – partisan squabbles have been with us from the beginning and our fourth president and father of the Constitution, Madison, encouraged the development of political parties for the good of the country. As Cheney puts it in a recent Politico article, “Partisanship can be offensive, nasty and worse. Trust me, I know. But it also keeps us from being a nation where there is no effective opposition—as in Russia, for example” (2014, May 5).

Quite honestly, it’s not disagreements but the “offensive and nasty” that troubles me. Emotions easily push us across a line into vilification of fellow citizens, even dear acquaintances. Civil discourse has become, for many, a thing of the past – tragically, the distant past. How do we recover it and yet not squelch the need for debate – sometimes vociferous debate?

Stephen L. Carter, Professor at Yale Law School, penned a lengthy list of recommendations on civility in a book titled the same, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (1998, pp. 279-285). I’ve listed a sampling below, several that have direct relevance for our current political campaign season.

  1. Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not.
  2. Civility requires that we sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know.
  3. Civility assumes that we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.
  4. Civility requires that we listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.
  5. Civility requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others.
  6. Civility allows criticism of others, and sometimes even requires it, but the criticism should always be civil.

Good advice as we go to the polls this week.

Edward M. Smith, Ph.D.