Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Choosing Civility: The Lemonade Lesson," Clarion Ledger Article from 9/19/10

Link to scan of the first page of "Choosing Civility"
Today, September 19th, 2010, The Clarion Ledger published a piece I contributed for them called "Choosing Civility: The Lemonade Lesson."  Once again, I benefited from the editors' excellent headline abilities, since my titles are never as punchy.  Mine are always more descriptive.  Anyway, I'm learning!  First, here is a link to a PDF scan of the article.  Along with that you'll find the text from an additional piece that the editors put together as a follow-up article.  This really made the opinion and perspectives sections today nicely unified in addressing a common point.  Kudos to the Clarion Ledger folks.

I should also mention that I was honored to have Marshall Ramsey (his Clarion Ledger blog and his own blog) create some excellent art to go with my piece.  Here's the graphic:

Here is the text of my article:


Choosing civility

On a hot summer day, young girls gave out lemonade in their neighborhood. The fact that they were not charging for their kindness launched columnist Terry Savage of the Chicago Sun-Times into a rage. According to Savage, these girls were the problem with America and a symptom of it.

Savage yelled "No!" at the girls and berated them. They were giving away their parents' property, Savage thought, assuming that the girls had no allowance of their own to use as they pleased. She failed to imagine that their parents intended to instill a spirit of giving in their children. To her the only point of a lemonade stand is to learn about business, never about the value of charity or kindness. Just think of how mad Savage must be about Jesus' miracle of feeding the multitudes, which, according to her logic, contributed to inflation and involved giving away his father's property.
The lemonade story is a clear example of the problem of incivility in America. In his recent book, Democracy and Moral Conflict, philosopher Robert Talisse has argued that incivility is one of the greatest threats to democracy in our country. National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach, a 30-year Republican congressman from Iowa, has been touring the country to talk about the great need for civility today. Talisse and Leach have noticed the rise of incivility in the country and are as concerned as I am about it.
Incivility has been severe many times in the last few years. In 2007, took out a large advertisement attacking U.S. Gen. David Patraeus. Sounding like mean-spirited school children, they asked: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"
More recently, town hall meetings around the country devolved quickly into screaming matches in which detractors wanted to avoid sincere debate about the need for health care reform. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's 2009 speech before Congress was equally troubling, though he has since apologized. Often the same people criticize President Obama for spending too much and then admonish all efforts to find cost saving strategies for reforming health care. Our problems are too big to be solved with partisan attacks and the avoidance of debate.
Conservative David Frum was right on target when he argued that unwillingness to engage in civil debate on health care reform meant that Republicans missed a real opportunity to shape the legislation that passed. Shortly after Frum made these remarks he was dismissed from the American Enterprise Institute, though his following has since grown.
At a time when oil and tar balls have devastated the coastal environment and economy in Mississippi and nearby states, we need civility profoundly. With high unemployment and low funds for Medicaid, we need political cooperation. Americans must tone down the virulence that plagues our debates. The disasters we face offer an opportunity to return to civility, to bring people together to address common problems.
It is fair to ask what civility is, after all. It sometimes sounds like what old people prefer or what the privileged classes call for when oppressed people rise up. No, civility is not necessarily a pacifist ethic. It is a set of at least three moral tenets.
The first rule of civility calls for open and intelligent public debate by means of respectful communication. This rule is broken when people falsify information or inflame the public against understanding groups who disagree. For instance, when Michael Moore shows only the devastation of job losses in Michigan in his film, Roger and Me, he omits any consideration of what happens when American companies fail to remain competitive. The disturbances of the town hall meetings on healthcare are another example of violating this rule.
The second tenet of civility demands respect for fellow citizens - that we see them as stakeholders and sources of insight about what keeps democracy afloat. One way to break this second rule is to demonize opposition. For example, the North Iowa Tea Party put up a billboard that, according to AP, "showed photographs of President Obama, Nazi leader Hitler and communist leader Lenin beneath the labels 'Democrat Socialism,' 'National Socialism,' and 'Marxist Socialism.' " Fortunately, the Tea Party members in Iowa came to see that the sign reflected poorly on them and they removed it.
It is difficult to imagine civil discourse between people who demonize each other. Consider CNN's reports in 2009 that "threats on the life of the president of the United States have now risen by as much as 400 percent since [Obama's] inauguration . . . [which] 'in this environment' go far beyond anything the Secret Service has seen with any other president." This year, past anger about the president's Christian pastor has been replaced with the contradicting pretension that he is a Muslim. Not only are these developments and the conflict over the building of mosques in New York and Tennessee disturbing for their efforts to demonize opposition, but they also treat Muslims as though they don't deserve the same freedom of religion as the rest of us. As citizens and voters, we must demand that our leaders address our real problems as a nation instead of stoking prejudices. Fortunately, we have a chance to make such a statement this November.
The third rule of civility calls for respect for public institutions. In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to accept the slow bureaucratic processes of the courts, but public institutions do something very important when they slow us down. They force us to wait, to allow anger to cool, and to let reason take over. Time and calmness are needed for intelligent thought and discussion. Without them, we get vigilantism, as in the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas.
Of course, respect for public institutions does not mean that we must avoid criticizing them. In fact, in America, criticism is a chief virtue. It is the most powerful tool for reforming unjust, ineffective, and wasteful practices. In that sense, then, respect for institutions requires scrutiny and criticism. These things are only meaningful, however, if it is possible for institutions to do better than they do. So, even civil criticism of public institutions implies optimism about the promise of better democratic governance.
Civility is not an empty term. It represents a class of virtues that we must foster in schools and in public debates. If constitutional democracy is worthwhile, it is because of its potential for intelligent social action. It can help the greatest number of people to be happy while respecting the rights of those who would fight even against civility itself.
We must not follow Savage's example. A civil answer to an offer of lemonade is "thank you." America today needs voices to be civil. The battle for civility is endless, to be sure, but without it we debase democracy and choose moral blindness over vision.
Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is assistant professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi, expressing only his own point of view in this article. His second book, Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy, will be released in 2011. Contact him at
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Here is the follow-up article by the editors at The Clarion Ledger:

Civility: Agreeable disagreements

(by the editors of The Clarion Ledger)

As much more eloquently expressed in today's Perspective essay by University of Mississippi assistant professor of Public Policy Leadership Eric Thomas Weber, can't we just all get along?

No, that's not the real question nor is it even a plausible question. Of course we can't just all get along.
We are Americans. We disagree. It's in our national DNA. We have a constitutional right to disagree in a nation founded on the principles of guaranteed freedoms and the pursuit - at least - of happiness.
But must we disagree so disagreeably? Must we demonize those with whom we disagree? And most of all, must we engage in an ever-escalating war of character assassination and what has come to be called the politics of personal destruction in the process.
The concept of the loyal opposition in this nation is not-so-slowly disappearing and being replaced by those who value "calling out" and "taking down" those with whom they disagree far more than a civil debate of the issues in which the ultimate goal is the common good.
America over the last two decades has become increasingly polarized - left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and patriot, black and white, rich and poor, hawk and dove.
It is as if America's political landscape is becoming - like professional wrestling - a carefully scripted pantomime of hero versus heel. One wonders what Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas would make of modern American political debate were they to tune in to the more animated discussions of the more extreme commentators on both MSNBC or Fox News on any given night.
What is lost in the growing incivility of public discourse at every level is the sense of American community.
In their debates, Lincoln expressed an admiration for the oratorical skills of his opponent Douglas: "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."
Competition is good, particularly in the marketplace of ideas. Spirited, passionate debate from all corners of the political spectrum is healthy and fosters the germination and growth of ideas that lead to progress.
But the level of incivility that reigns in this country today breeds political gridlock and division that threatens to paralyze government at a critical juncture in the nation's history. How much progress our nation could make if we pulled together half as hard as we pull against each other on a daily basis.
- Editors at The Clarion Ledger.  Visit The Clarion Ledger here.