Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Civility Is Overrated

At Politico, PR guy Mark DeMoss laments the lousy reception to the Civility Pledge he and Clinton hack Lanny Davis have been circulating:
It’s only 32 words. Yet, only two sitting members of Congress or governors have signed the civility pledge.


So what was it about civility that all the other 537 elected officials couldn’t agree to? Read it and decide for yourself.
  • 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.
In May, Lanny Davis, my friend and co-founder of the Civility Project, and I sent a letter to all 535 members of Congress and 50 sitting governors inviting them to sign a civility pledge.


We made it easy, enclosing a response form, return envelope and fax number. I’m sorry to report, six months later, that only two responded: Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
This is a shame, DeMoss says, because the American people are sick of how nasty the political discourse has become, and because incivility is just plain wrong:
We share a conviction about the importance of at least trying to change a polarizing, uncivil political culture that now appears to be the norm.

Call it old-fashioned, but we believe debates should be won on the strength of ideas and words -- not on the volume of our voices or the outrageousness of our ads. Yet some emails I’ve received on our website are so filled with obscenities that they could not be printed in a newspaper.

Incivility is not just a political problem, according to Yale law professor Stephen Carter. “Rules of civility are thus rules of morality,” Carter said, “it is morally proper to treat our fellow citizens with respect, and morally improper not to. Our crisis of incivility is part of a larger crisis of morality.” 
I hate to fit someone's definition of "morally improper," but the fact is, there's way too much hand-wringing over civility in politics these days. For one thing, sleazy invective, while lamentable, has been around since the beginning, so not only is this not some new development, but if it was going to destroy the country, it would have done so by now.

That's not to say politicians should be given a pass for trafficking in lies and rumors, far from it. But that brings us to the second, and far more important, reason these guys are barking up the wrong tree: we currently define negativity and incivility so broadly that they're not only virtually meaningless, but they actually serve to stifle a lot of things that need to be said.

Simply put, there are a lot of bad people active, and bad things done, in politics today, things that deserve not just disagreement, but demand moral condemnation. Advocating the murder of unborn babies, lying about an issue, defaming someone, trying to violate the Constitution, controlling free speech...all these things run deeper than mere disagreements between equally-decent people. These are things that should shock and disgust men and women of goodwill, and compel them to drive them out of the sphere of public respectability - along with their practitioners.

Instead, our "civility" obsession all too often leads to pitiful spectacles like playing dumb about the integrity of backstabbers, and meekly wondering why opponents believe vicious lies about us (here's a hint: they don't). Such rhetorical cowardice and incompetence enables the dishonest and the hateful to go about their business without serious challenge, all but ensuring a culture that's less civil, not more.

Real civility is a fine value, but a healthy political culture needs to understand it's not the highest value. Every American must hold truth and justice as more important than decorum.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The views expressed on this weblog are strictly my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any other websites, blogs, campaigns, publications, or organizations where I have been employed and/or my work has been featured, nor do they necessarily reflect the views of any individuals employed by or otherwise affiliated with such groups.