EDITORIAL: Without civility, our system doesn’t work
As a young teenage schoolboy, George Washington copied out 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior.” Many of these had to do with simple manners. “Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork or knife,” reads Rule 100. Good advice at any time.
But the first rule the future president wrote down and followed for the rest of his life was especially notable: “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” There are times when I find myself wishing that all of us would adopt the civil behavior of that particular teenager.
Our politics today too often are strident and polarized. We live in a polity that seems to reward in-your-face rhetoric and confrontational behavior. Yet civility — respecting the rights and dignity of others — uplifts our common life. It makes engaging in politics more pleasant, more appealing, and ultimately, more fruitful.
There’s no question that incivility has consequences. It makes the work of democracy more difficult: building consensus, reconciling competing views, enticing ordinary Americans to give up some of their private lives to devote themselves to the public good. It makes key institutions like Congress less effective.
Stressing respect for one’s opponents does not mean we need to agree with one another. Far from it. Treating one another civilly is how people who don’t agree still manage to weigh issues carefully and find common ground.
This is not always easy. Civility takes discipline and patience. Especially when faced with incivility, the temptation is to lash right back. But aside from some kind of momentary satisfaction, it’s hard to see how this is an effective tactic if our purpose is to get things done. Because in a democracy like ours, the key challenge is to foster a debate that respects all voices, even those of dissent and protest, and create an environment that enables the agreements we need to advance the common good.
The reassuring thing is that bringing this country closer to the political behavior that George Washington had in mind is not a matter of enacting laws or passing new regulations. It’s simply a matter of encouraging respectful behavior, one person at a time. If we can do that and reverse the course we’ve embarked on in recent years, then we can still show that a government of, for, and by the people works.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.