Written by Brent Hoffman
Public debate hasn’t always been this way. Historians report that when George Washington was a young man, he “had written 110 rules of civility and decent behavior.” The Founding Fathers considered civility an “essential duty” of citizens in our Constitutional Republic. My how times have changed.
These days, with most debates reduced to soundbites or Twitter-feeds, respectful debate is nearly impossible on “controversial” topics…such as the nature and definition of marriage. I learned this firsthand after introducing a resolution on marriage (free of any religious references), with one citizen comparing it to “radical Muslims trying to impose their sick agenda.” Another citizen sent an email comparing the City Council to “hateful mobs…and officially joined the Nazi party.” Most disturbing, two citizens called our home in the dead of night, leaving a message about “anal sex” and my “daughter,” among other things. While I welcome criticism and probably deserve much of it, I’ve yet to understand how anyone could consider such behavior appropriate or necessary (my daughter, by the way is 6 years old). We should be especially wary of those who preach a message of tolerance, and yet show such intolerance for other people’s opinions.
For citizens who may mourn the “death of civility,” we should know that the solution will be neither quick nor easy…but it is an effort worthy or our attention. If our Nation becomes more divided, and less civil, the “silent majority” will likely become less-involved, further yielding the public arena of debate to polarized and aggressive viewpoints. And as one author writes, “a nation experiencing both polarization and citizen apathy is a Nation at risk.” But if we’re to confront the problem, citizens should also know the source and solution lies not with the state, but with the individual. It’s difficult for our politicians to represent us with honor if a word shouted is applauded while a word whispered is ignored. We must consider fact before opinion, and encourage debate about the merits of an argument without degrading the person who makes it. Put simply, the lack of civility in politics reflects the lack of civility in the populace. Whether politician or policeman, publisher or parent, we should strive to treat one another with respect, and for our debates to be civil rather than hostile.
In brief, civility simply means “respect between peoples.” In a Nation dependent upon ideas, dialogue and debate, we should hope for a rebirth of it. In the words of Barry Goldwater, we should try to “disagree without being so disagreeable.”
Brent Hoffman is an Independent Conservative. He serves on the City Council in Sioux City and has been honored as “Best Politician” every year in office. Mr. Hoffman wrote and sponsored the Defense of Marriage resolution in December 2008. He’s a former military officer and is a Pentagon 9/11 Survivor.
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