Whatever Happened To Civility?

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 25, 2011
| Del.icio.us

A couple of weekends ago, Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, came to town to address the 2011 graduates at UH-Manoa’s spring commencement. A friend of mine had a good seat at that event but said the acoustics were poor and he could hardly hear the Chairman’s talk. Leach’s topic was “Civility in a Fractured Society.”

I caught Leach’s thoughts on civility the same weekend at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival. The crowd in the municipal auditorium was sparse, and that’s a shame.

The former Iowa Republican congressman attributed the new incivility in American politics to a number of factors, beginning with the selection process of the two major political parties. The Republican party members active in choosing their nominee are hard-right conservatives, while Democratic activists are hard-left liberals. The majority of people, most not involved in the selection process, are neither hard-right nor hard-left.

So both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates move toward the political center for the general election to win and, if elected, in order to govern. Such is not the case, argued Leach, for congressional candidates. Eighty-five percent of the nation’s congressional seats are non-competitive, either safely Democrat or safely Republican, securely left or right, respectively.


“There’s no incentive for congressional candidates to move against the activist element of their party,” said Leach. So they blast away at each other, the President, whomsoever, from the ideological perspective of the activists in their district.

The new realities of journalism have contributed as well. For much of the 20th Century, television and radio reporting tended to be evenhanded; but in recent decades cable has changed that. Radio and cable stations have sought a target audience approach, going after either liberal or conservative audiences by skewing everything toward their audiences’ ideology.

“That,” said Leach, “has nothing to do with reporting.”

Leach also argued that our current incivility is caused by “an absence of abstraction. We once talked about the ‘common good’ or the ‘greatest good for the greatest number.’ Now our politicians simply appeal to their activist base.”

That appeal to either a hard-left or hard-right base, in Leach’s view, has little to do with reality: “To get a sense of reality, you have to see an event from different sets of eyes.”

Political consultants too often provide a candidate’s only set of eyes. That results in an even louder cacophony of shrill charge and counter-charge.

“Our politics has no referees,” said Leach. “Consultants are constantly telling their candidates to go negative.”


But the incivility of our discourse may be, in Leach’s telling, primarily a problem of human nature. He quotes The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold ... The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Leach also says “words matter.” He cited the uplifting language of the Declaration of Independence, of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address “with malice toward none,” of Barack Obama’s Cairo speech asking for greater respect between members of the world’s religions, and of black and white leaders in post-apartheid South Africa coalescing around the word “reconciliation.”

“We have often led the world in our reputation for fairness and decency,” Leach finished, “In our civil discourse, we have to relearn how to understand and respect others.”

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