No Excuse for Incivility

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October 12, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

The vice presidential debate raised many important questions about social equity, foreign policy management and the value of human life. Both Vice President Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan had moments when they explained their views passionately and well. 

But for those who don’t follow politics and policy very closely, tuning into the debate was probably an unpleasant experience. Biden displayed an aggressive, bullying style that often made a genuine discussion impossible. He greeted Ryan’s points with mocking laughter, and, by one count, interrupted his opponent more than 80 times. Ryan maintained his composure, but sometimes seemed at a loss on how to respond. 

Those who watched the debate saw two prepared and knowledgeable men. They saw essential issues raised. Yet they also saw some of the things they dislike most about politics, particularly rudeness and incivility.   

No party or ideology, of course, has a corner on civility. Rudeness is a staple of cable news and the Internet—so common we hardly even notice it. Politicians shout out attacks during the State of the Union address or run hyperbolic attack ads against each other.  When it comes to incivility, partisanship can lead to a kind of blindness.  We tend to resent the incivility of those we disagree with and excuse or ignore the incivility of our own political side. 

It is true that democracy was designed for disagreement. Conflicting views are often clarifying.  And sometimes a confrontational approach is called for. Civility is not a synonym for hollowed-out principles or lukewarm commitments. 

But, as I’ve argued before, there are several reasons that tone and countenance matter in a democracy. 

One is practical. In the long run, contempt and anger can diminish the appeal of a party or cause.  Effective persuasion is reasonable, judicious and sober rather than aggressive, abrasive and abusive. “If you would win a man to your cause,” said Abraham Lincoln, “first convince him that you are his sincere friend.  Therein is a drop of honey that catches the heart, which, say what you will, is the great high road to his reason.” 

But civility depends on more than utilitarian considerations.  More fundamentally it has to do with reflecting a view of human persons and their inherent dignity.  It means treating people with respect and good manner regardless of the view they might hold. 

And the decline of civility in politics is not only unpleasant, it is dangerous.  Mutual contempt makes democratic deliberation more difficult.  It complicates coalition building and the process of compromise. It both reflects and contributes to extreme polarization. A democracy may be designed for disagreement, but it is damaged by disdain.  

Incivility is not new in American politics. It has been as bad, or worse, at other times.  But in every time, it has made the work of democracy more difficult.  We have every reason to expect incivility in politics.  But that does not mean we should excuse it. 

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).   

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.