Civility needs to dominate in society


George Bush is Hitler. Barack Obama is a socialist who wants to pull the plug on your grandmother.

Statements like these cut across party lines.

The former president, a republican, was not misled in 2003 by faulty intelligence to arrive at the reasonable conclusion that Saddam Hussein might well have posed a serious threat to the civilized world. Rather, he intentionally lied about WMDs, in a nefarious scheme to drag the United States into an unnecessary war in the Middle East (after first engineering the attacks of Sept. 11, of course, so he’d have a good excuse).

Now the current president, a democrat, is lying to a credulous public once again-this time in a devious plot to reform the way health care is provided in this country, currently the only wealthy post-industrial society not to assure regular access to care for all citizens.

Neither man should be credited with doing his best-right or wrong, agree or disagree on the issues-to deal with some very complicated and difficult problems, the kind that admit, at best, of imperfect solutions in an uncertain world.

No, they are liars, out to wreck the country.

How do I know these things? Because I’ve heard some angry people shouting them. And more disgruntled folks mumbling their assent.

I’ve witnessed, in other words, some of my fellow citizens’ low level of respect for the authority embodied in the head of state of our nation, the elected leader of the greatest democracy on earth. Whether it’s the far-left activist group Code Pink barging into the Republican National Convention to announce, edifyingly, “Bush lied, people died!” or the conservative Congressman from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, blurting out “You lie!” in the middle of a presidential address, I cringe for my country.

For as numerous studies have shown in recent decades, incivility-or to put more plainly, rudeness and apathetic withdrawal-is a growing problem in America today, both in our politics and, more insidiously, our everyday lives.

In spite of statistics reported in books, such as Yale law professor Stephen Carter’s “Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy,” an astonishing 89 percent of grade school teachers report regularly facing abusive language from their students. Skeptics cite that manners have always been thought a bit rough out here on the frontier, an argument which holds truth. Nonetheless, I think we all know that it’s wrong to insult one another, and realize instinctively that we do it more these days-in myriad ways, not excluding the casual show of callous indifference-than we should.

My point is that there are two meanings of “civility”-simple politeness on an interpersonal level, and active involvement in public life or engagement with “civil society”-and they are inseparable. The way we treat our leaders mirrors what we can expect from one another. It’s a serious problem for a democracy when it ceases to cultivate, on both levels, the habit of civility-the instinct of mutual respect and respect for the political process.

If we continue as a citizenry that cannot stand itself-one that cannot bear to exchange differences of opinion without demonizing opponents-we cannot possibly act together for the common good.

When incivility becomes the norm, only the insensitive and the pathologically self-absorbed will want to get involved. What Carter calls “the etiquette of democracy” is about more than “mere manners,” as he suggests, in a book that should be read by all concerned citizens. It’s all about the responsible exercise of freedom.

Editors note : Gabriel Brahm is an assistant professor of English. Professor’s corner is a weekly column written by various NMU faculty. Any professors interested in appearing in The North Wind Professor’s Corner should contact the Opinion Editor at [email protected]