Civility: The Disintegrating Pillar of Democracy

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About a month ago I blogged on moderation, that virtue that so held the esteem of Socrates. The central message of that blog was that each one of us is an inherently limited being. We possess a mere five senses, a small and frail body, a powerful but fickle mind and a finite range of experiences. Given our obvious limitations, I concluded, the only reasonable way to go through life is to do so humbly, always conscious of the likelihood that we are wrong.

The same is true of our civil discourse – our conversations about politics, justice, society and all those things that concern the public. In public conversation we should offer our own ideas without fear, it is true, for fear has a way of stifling our most closely held beliefs. But we should also do so modestly, cognizant of the limits of our own wisdom. This same awareness of our limits impels us to listen to the ideas of others – even those with whom we vehemently disagree – with the respect and courtesy due them. For if all, as we believe, are equal, then the ideas and opinions of others must be just as valuable as our own.

These are basic fundaments of what was once called “common” courtesy. If one could ever use the expression without irony with regards to political parlance (and I am not sure they ever could), that time is long past. Today the political field is littered with conversation that is often exactly the opposite of what might be called “courteous,” and while I, like most Americans, have become somewhat jaded to the theatrical and childish spectacle that is modern political discourse, I am still often shocked at the lack of simple courtesy shown in the public realm. This is true of both citizens and their electees.

To us modern citizens, courtesy may seem a topic more fit for a Victorian-era drawing room than the 21st-century blog of a man who has not yet (thank God) completed his thirtieth year. But I think this is a misconception. I find civility in conversation every bit as relevant today as it was centuries ago, and in this age of hate-filled anonymous Internet comments and rampant dirt-throwing in the public sphere we are seeing the destabilizing and estranging effect general incivility may have on society. Nothing is more sure to convince one that the human race is hopeless than to spend an hour reading random Internet comments. Nothing is more sure to dispel one’s hope in American politics than to spend an hour being forced to watch Fox News or MSNBC any time of year, or to watch any channel at all during election season.

Lately, having noticed with alarm the propensity of a number of my friends – ranging on the political spectrum from staunch conservative to tree-hugging liberal – to throw up blatantly biased and reactionary articles on their Facebook page, I thought I’d take the chance to sit down and write out why I find the decline in America’s civil courtesy so disheartening. I write today, then, about courtesy.

What is courtesy? It is the code of behaviors we enact to guarantee good relations between different people. Conversation is a dynamic thing. Its contents can pit persons of wildly divergent views against one another. In such circumstances, we need to have some way of communicating our good intentions and overall respect for our counterpart even while the contents of our message can be strongly opposed to them.

This is why we care about courtesy. My grandpa once told me courtesy was the “glue that holds society together.” As a teenager my response was to respectfully nod and waited for him to look the other way before I rolled my eyes.

But he was right. In a world of clashing opinions that can easily set off volatile emotions we need courtesy to give strong evidence that our arguments are offered in good spirit. This not only earns us trust, but it encourages our counterpart to engage fully and to not hold back their own opinions out of fear or disdain.

The more you know someone – the more intimate your understanding of their underlying personality and beliefs – the less courtesy is necessary because we already know and love them. Their character has credit with us and ours with them. We know by the tiny signs we learn only to read over years of exposure that our friends, even in moments of impoliteness, mean well. We do not need a series of formalities to convey this message for us. We already know.

It is with people we do not know well – whose infinitesimal signs we cannot read and whose motives we cannot intuit – that we need courtesy. We do not know their character, so if they disagree with us it can be easy to read their disagreement as an attack on us personally. In these uncertain and tense negotiations between foreign parties, courtesy is like a billowing white flag declaring that, however disparate your ideas may be, you both come in peace.

Perhaps there are tribes somewhere in the world wherein the relations between all members are so familiar that courtesy is unnecessary, but such is definitively not the case in the teeming, milling, multicultural society in which we live. Thrown together in the U.S., as in most modern nations, are an expansive mixture of races, cultures, religions, classes, sexual orientations, seniors, children, thirty-somethings and teens. All of these groups hold their own beliefs and patterns of communication, and they are far from universal.

Watching communication between these groups can either be the most hopeful or depressing thing you’ve ever witnessed. Take a conversation between a teenager and a senior. If the teenager has no respect for the perspective of their elder and the elder has no willingness to remember what it was like to be a confused adolescent hormone bomb, the conversation between the two is ugly and degrading, causing neutral observers to despair of both present and future generations. But if, on the contrary, the teen speaks with modesty and the senior listens in wizened sympathy, this decades-spanned conversation becomes one of the most beautiful interactions two human beings can produce.

The same is true when the communication gap between religious groups. In a conversation between an atheist and a Christian, if the atheist is derisive of the Christian’s belief in God and the Christian grants no respect to the atheist’s right to choose what he or she believes, the conversation is depressing. If, however, the atheist is respectful of the idea of God and the Christian gives credence to the possibility that the atheist may be right – if, in short, they approach each other with humility and a respect – the conversation can be revitalizing to our ailing belief that there really is hope for this flawed race of ours.

The only difference in these two types of conversations to make one elicit hope and the other despair is that one is governed by courtesy, while the other is not.

We turn to modern American politics.

Of all the things most symbolic of the direness of the straits in which, as Americans, our civil society is placed, the lack of common courtesy among citizens and among the people they elect to represent them is the most emblematic. We are a nation that prides itself on diversity, on freedom of opinion, on the public’s equality of voice no matter what ideas they may espouse.

These are and ought to be hallowed tenets of our society. Even more than natural resources and an exceptional set of founders, America owes its success to the dynamic weave of ideas created by its mix of people, who from the beginning intermingled amongst each other to a far greater extent than was the case in any of their European mother nations.

In the area of diversity, what is true of the natural world is true of the political. Just as a wide range of plant life ensures the flourishing of an ecosystem, a wide range of ideas sets up conditions for human flourishing. In America that diversity has not always come easy, but it is worth every one of the countless drops of blood and years in prison that have spent to gain it.

Yet, in one of the tragic turns of this country’s history, we live in a time in which all that diversity seems destined to come to naught. This is not because of legal barriers. It is not because we are deprived of legal equality or because we are restricted from voicing our opinions openly in public. It is because we do not have the common courtesy to hear one other out in civility and good faith.

In the absence of courteous and respectful civil discourse, all of the awesome diversity manifest in American culture is neutered of whatever power it may have had to make us a better society. If we cannot even sit and respectfully hear out one another’s opinions, what good is all our diversity? And if we cannot display the maturity to engage in civil conversation, how then can we expect each other, as democracy requires, to defer a little of our own interest every once in a while in favor of the common good?

And while it is widespread through all our nation, nowhere is the brokenness of our discourse been more flawlessly exemplified than it is in the public arena. Judging by their voting patterns and behavior in office, our “leaders’” greatest distinction is being the people who have most perfectly mastered the petty arts: refusing to openly consider alternative ideas (a direct product of a lack of humility), declining to compromise in the slightest, and positively shunning even the possibility of engaging in an honest political exchange not littered with absurd exaggerations and deliberate misrepresentations.

In a word, our representatives – our “civil” servants – are paragons of incivility.

In republican (speaking here of representative government, not the Republican Party with a capital “R”) government, we elect individuals to make decisions that profoundly affect our lives. As such, we hope our representatives embody certain virtues we admire. We want them, in short, to be among the best examples of the values we esteem in a good citizen. And while a healthy sense of humor never did anyone any harm, the trait of childishness is one of the last things we would hope for in those that represent not only us but the best of what we hope to be, who hold the keys to our future.

But if one was to choose a word to describe the behavior of politicians today, “childish” would have to be among the top choices.

Now, I love children. They are adorable, amazing and filled with a creativity and freshness of perspective which, along with the endless smiles they elicit, are indispensable to all adults. If children were born as miniature 40 year-olds and only had to gain height to reach adulthood, the world would not be worth living in. Adults need children to keep us sane.

Still, as cute as they are, children are in the end essentially miniature barbarians who have to be wrangled into some semblance of societal functionality by adults (biting and kicking all the way). Children are an inspiration to our hopefulness and creativity, but watch two four year-olds melt down over a blob of green playdough and you’ll marvel at how those same creatures can grow up to design airplanes and models of government. Having children play a role in society is wonderful, but thank God their lack of size and foresight limit the damage they can wreak in their fits of unreasoning insanity.

Thankfully, as our bodies grow so do certain understandings. As we transition from childhood to maturity we undergo a series of related realizations, and it is the internalization of these bits of wisdom that, more than age, earn us the title of “adult.”

The first of these realizations is that the other people with whom we share this earth are also human beings, and that they are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure and forming ideas on their own. This realization is the beginning of moral development. I call it the recognition of agency.

Another of these realizations is that life is not perfect. None of us – not even the most fortunate – gets everything they want. The best way to go about things is to strive for more, yes, but also make do with what you’ve got.

An even higher realization is that a world in which you got everything you wanted would be a world filled with injustice. In this world of finite resources and diverse opinions, to wish for everything the way you want it is to ignore the wishes of the numerous other people who wish it was another way. To wish more for yourself is often to wish less for others, and there is no way to fit this in with a conception of justice that says we are all equal.

The people we meet in life that strike us with admiration are the people who have mastered all these lessons. Having internalized the principle of agency, they are respectful of others and value their opinions. Having accepted that life is not perfect, they accept setbacks to their lives with grace and dignity. The wisest among them go a step further and make sacrifices to their own ease and comfort for the greater good. To do so – to acknowledge that you are not the only person worth consideration in this world and to give up some of your interests graciously in light of that knowledge – is the acme of maturity.

These principles should, by all rights, translate themselves to our society as a whole. As individuals, communities, political parties, businesses, religious affiliations and interest groups, we ought to realize there are many other people with different but equally legitimate interests to ours. And as mature individuals, we ought to cede some of our interests willingly – not kicking and screaming and forcing others to pry them from our clenched fists – and do so not out of fear or pressure but simple decency. Our selflessness should arise from an acknowledgment that our interests are not the only ones of substance, that there are other people with other interests that are just as legitimate and valuable as our own, and that common decency demands that we yield some of our preferences for the good of the whole. This basic willingness to compromise is the barest necessity in the pursuit of justice, especially in a multicultural society such as ours.

Now, I ask you to consider the behavior of Congress (and just so there’s no confusion, I’m talking about both parties indiscriminately). Both parties are more than willing to use the basest methods available to get what they want. Which party is using which underhanded method depends only on which is in the majority at the time. In nearly every way the behavior of Congress, the people we hope to exemplify our highest principles, is more pedantic than mature. It is more befitting of a child than the most exemplary of our adults.

Here are some of the ways.

Though compromise is an essential part of a multicultural democracy, Congress’s members regularly refuse to make even the slightest concessions to the other party’s desires, this despite the fact that the other party at all times represents a substantial portion of America. Contrary to the prevailing opinion in this country, possessing a majority in Congress does not grant a party license to run roughshod over the country. It merely grants them a mandate to move forward on key parts of their agenda – but always with due concessions to the still-relevant minority’s requests.

What is more, in addition to showing not even the most rudimentary ability to compromise in good faith, Congress’s members compound their immaturity by deliberately and regularly resorting to the most despicable and dishonorable tactics possible in order to get what they want. They obfuscate bills and mislead the public. They paint every mundane issue as if the very future of free society depended upon it. They constantly and deliberately misrepresent the opponent’s position with shameless regularity. And they do all of this so constantly that it no longer even raises eyebrows. The use of these fallacious tactics undercuts the very authenticity of the debate itself.

The term “authenticity of the debate” may seem obscure, but it is actually vital. In a democracy, voters depend on the debate. Their decisions hinge on the issues discussed and the relative positions of those running for office. But when the political debate’s authenticity is undercut, the ability of citizens to choose wisely is likewise crippled. Thus, in sabotaging the authenticity of America’s political debate representatives are undermining the entire democratic process. They are undermining our capacity to find justice.

This all occurs before the actual work of Congress – making bills and laws – begins. If an issue actually materializes into substantive form rather than just words, our representatives then resort to tactics that are, if possible, even more dishonorable than those they display in debate. They have a near-infinite array of maneuvers that manipulate the lawmaking process and distort our government’s design, all done in the name of furthering their own localized and self-interested agenda. They pocket bills. They let them passively die in committee. They subject them to procedural absurdities that are flagrantly against the intentions of the Constitution and all ideas of democracy.

And, if all this relentless obstructionism fails, they filibuster.

The frequency with which the filibuster is used – even the existence of the filibuster itself – is easily the greatest symbol of institutionalized pettiness that exists in our legislature today. Many Americans, perhaps due to Jimmy Stewart’s valiant efforts in the heartwarming classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, seem to view the filibuster as some kind of inviolable tool – the last bastion for the minority to preserve its freedom when an evil majority gains power.

This is not what the filibuster is. It may, in a few exceptional and long-lost instances, have been used this way, but the filibuster is not some sacred tool of justice that remains when all else fails. Far from it.

What the filibuster is, in fact – whether wielded by a Democratic or Republican minority – is an underhanded abuse of obscure Senate procedural rules to obstruct the due process of law. It is the U.S. Senate’s refined practice of plugging their ears and saying, “nanna nanna boo-boo” loudly and without end, until everyone is so fed up they leave in disgust. And for those who mistakenly think this epitome of childish, undemocratic behavior is defensible because of the causes it promotes in the face of a potentially tyrannical majority, let me just point out that the longest-ever filibuster was conducted in 1957 by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Do you know why?

Because he was opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which gave repressed blacks in the south the right to vote.

The most significant use of the filibuster in American history was used by white supremacists to keep black people from voting. This is its legacy. Far from being a “last bastion of justice,” the filibuster is a last bastion of injustice. It is an impediment to progress and an amplifier of our already-chronic governmental inefficiency. It is a childish tool used by petty people to get their way.

Most people (though certainly not all) mature with age. However, this rule does not, apparently, apply to legislatures, because although Congress is now over 200 years old, the filibuster – the most childish tool in the political arsenal – is now used or threatened with unprecedented regularity. Its employment, which used at least to be reserved for only the most contentious issues, is now so common as not to occasion any notice.

In 1947 President Truman, frustrated with an obstructionist legislation, called it the “do-nothing Congress.” If this qualifies a Congress to be labeled “do-nothings,” one can only imagine what he would have called the Congress of today, which last year passed 60 bills. But this should not surprise us. How could it be a surprise to anyone when our main political body has chosen, in lieu of respectful debate seasoned with compromise, to yell at the top of its lungs until it gets its way?

The incivility of Congress is not just a shift in culture from Victorian manners to hard-nosed modern dialogue. It is not a change that can be written off as just another meaningless ebb in society’s tidal flows. We need civility just as much today as we did then because civility, in the words of my grandfather, truly is the glue that holds society together. In the factious days of the Constitutional Convention, it was what held the founding fathers together through months of debates in the stifling hot summer of 1787. We owe our nationhood and our Constitution not just to their brilliance, but their civility.

Our legislators are poor torch-bearers for that generation’s legacy. So too are we citizens. If our leaders are shameful in their public conduct, we are shameful in our willingness to follow in their footsteps.

I do not know if there was ever a time in any society when the majority of people regularly conducted themselves courteously and respectfully in their civil discourse. I suspect it’s fluctuated over the eons. But I know that if we do not find a way to do it ourselves, the gradual buildup of resentment and misunderstanding will so weaken our foundations that we will no longer be able to hold together. The signs of America’s breakdown in political dialogue are everywhere, and only the short-sighted and self-deluding can believe that these breakdowns in communication do not lead to much greater consequences after.

So, please, if we cannot vote in Congress ourselves, let us at least stop contributing to the problem. Let us stop conducting our conversation in immature, petty ways and stop rewarding representatives who do so. Let us stop adding to the cacophony of screaming voices that fills our public air. Let us cease consuming reactionary articles and sharing them on Facebook and Twitter. Let us put off this current mode of childishness that carries with it all the destructiveness of juvenile behavior. Let us do honor to the men and high ideals that built this nation.

Let us remember how to be civil with one another.

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