We must build our public square on civil dialogue

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

The genius of the American founders lay in their ability to design institutions that would call forth the best in a fallen humanity while containing the worst. The separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, novel for its time, is a good example of this theo-political balancing act: No single person can be trusted to wield power; therefore, power must be shared among many and policed by a legal system of checks and balances. Yet our founders also recognized that the U.S. Constitution is but one part of a larger whole called the American political economy. As I have previously noted in this space, while the United States does have a single document called “The Constitution,” with an uppercase T and C, the American system also presumes nonconstitutional values and customs that are just as vital, if not more vital to the health of our democracy.

Among these indispensable customs are decorum and civility in public argument, which largely distinguish a polity from a mere mob. A presupposition of our political economy is that reasonable people can and do disagree about important public matters and that they will do so through spirited yet civil public argument. Americans have not always been civil or decorous with one another, of course; but until recently this was the minimal expectation, and when one failed to meet it, some social penalty was often applied.

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Americans have not always been civil or decorous with one another, of course; but until recently this was the minimal expectation.

Yet the words of the previous paragraph now seem as quaint as a telegram. The public discourse has devolved to such an extent that the value of civility itself is now openly questioned as often as its conventions are routinely violated. “You talk about somebody that’s a loser,” President Trump recently said about a journalist. “She doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing…. But she’s very nasty. And she shouldn’t be. She shouldn’t be. You’ve got to treat the White House and the office of the presidency with respect.”

That last bit is true. But the president should be treated with respect because all people should be treated with respect. That is the value that justifies civility. Embedded in the very notion of democracy, of a free and fair society, is the principle that we are all worthy of respect or none of us is. When challenged about his lack of decorum, Mr. Trump responds by telling us that he is the victim of slander and is therefore justified in employing a bombastic style. People hit him, so he hits them back, his handlers tell us. Yet that is the moral reasoning of a 12-year-old. Few parents would accept the excuse “Everybody else is doing it” from their children. So why do we accept this justification from the president? Why do some offer it in defense of his actions?

The president should be treated with respect because all people should be treated with respect.

I am well aware that Mr. Trump is not the only demagogue in the country. A quick glance at my Twitter feed is enough to establish that sad fact. But Mr. Trump is the only one who happens to be president of the United States and, as such, has a greater duty than most to deploy his rhetoric with prudence, decorum and moral clarity, an extra-constitutional but nonetheless essential duty of his office, one he consistently fails to execute. While Mr. Trump is far from the only culprit in the demise of the civic discourse, he is the most visible; and, whether we like it or not, he establishes the standard for others. As we used to say growing up on Cape Cod, “a fish rots from the head.”

It is unlikely that Mr. Trump will change his ways. But we can—if we want to. I fear that too many of us, while loudly complaining about the polarization and coarseness in our public discourse, quietly rather enjoy it, even if only subconsciously. Deep down in places we don’t like to talk about, we seem to get a thrill from the politics of destruction. It makes us feel powerful, if only for a moment. Cain didn’t kill Abel, after all, over a mere difference of opinion. He killed him out of jealousy, arrogance and pride. So too do we.

Overcoming sin requires grace. Our founders knew that. They did not understand civility to be something like a social contract: We agree to treat each other a certain way; and if the other party breaks the deal, then we are released from the obligation. No, our founders understood that the duty to be civil is not rooted in social custom but in the divine command to love one another. And God didn’t say: “Since some of you are not loving one another, all bets are off.”

God doesn’t ask us, he orders us to love one another. Civility is one way we carry out that command. The task of every citizen, but especially the Christian citizen, is to testify to this divine command in all our public actions; to labor to build a public square that calls forth the best in a fallen humanity while containing the worst, a place where destructive confrontation yields to creative encounter, a place of true civil dialogue not for the sake of one but for the many.

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J Cosgrove
4 weeks 1 day ago

Civility starts with people telling the truth about things. Incivility started long before Trump so to single him out is disingenuous. Trump while a boor, often obnoxious, lacks self control and is frequently nasty is the result of the incivility not the cause of it. For another side of the Trump, phenomenon read http://bit.ly/2z7M27G. Trump has a way of revealing the underlying attitudes of his opposition.

Chuck Kotlarz
4 weeks ago

Happy Thanksgiving Mr. Cosgrove.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

Thank you!

rose-ellen caminer
3 weeks 5 days ago

"Civility starts with people speaking the truth about things'' I love what I heard some Jamaican shaman type fisherman say on Anthon Bourdain's show recently ;"Truth? People kill in the name of truth". I too have always believed that people deserve respect by virtue of their humanity, but an offensive trope I 've always heard is that "respect is earned." A lot of virtue signaling going on as Trump insightfully said recently; the extreme polarization comes with people wanting to show that their political opponents are morally inferior to them.[ paraphrasing ]. This dichotomy of superior /inferior humans, is now accepted when relegated to people based on their moral beliefs. Those[morally] inferior do not deserve respect. Same old same old.

Having said this, incivility can sometimes be necessary; if someone is quietly stepping on your toe with their boot, and you kick them and shout, you appear to be uncivilly causing a scene, yet the quiet apparently civil person committing the injustice was the one who was really being uncivil. People trying to change injustices have always been told to behave civilly, "for society is bound by civility", to silence and maintain the status quo, which some are being hurt by, or just out of indifference or ignorance to the unjustoce that is the status quo. Incivility has its place.

Jim MacGregor
4 weeks 1 day ago

While I agree with Fr Malone’s discussion, I am also reminded of our history of violence even on the floor of Congress and of boorishness in Presidents like Jackson and A Johnson.

Michael Barberi
3 weeks 6 days ago

While we can all point to the ills of Trump's incivility, as well as the incivility of our politicians and the media, we also must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that incivility did not start with Trump. This does not excuse Trump from his irresponsible remarks or incivility.

I know some people say 'if only Trump would stop saying the fake news media is the enemy of the people, the media would be fair and balanced in their reporting of him''. In truth, this is pure non-sense. Let's be honest. Most of the main-street media is a far-left liberal establishment. They have been moving to the far left over the past 40 years. For example, in the 1970s most of the main street media broadcasted "the news" without any political spin or ideological bent. Today however, very few TV channels are 'pure news'. Most are news commentaries, and that is part of the problem. Under this menu, we are not getting all the facts about the news. Far too often we are getting someone's view of a news story or political issue that frequently reflects the commenters ideology. Even newspapers like the NY Times and Washington Post often publish news articles that are not the complete airing of all the facts. In some cases, the facts in the article are completely false. Today I have to watch 5 different TV channels to get to all the facts about a certain news story or issue before I can make an informed decision.

I don't find any joy in the hate-filled polarized news commentaries on cable today or when President Trump says irresponsible things. I also don't have a subconscious desire for incivility, hyper partisan politics or misleading news stories.

With respect to 'civility' what we need are honest political leaders that will light the way to civil discourse, respect for the opinions and arguments of others, and demonstrate a real willingness to find comprise for the good of all the people. If anyone can tell me who falls into this category, I would be highly grateful. I hope someone will emerge that will fix Washington. Obama campaigned on it, but he did very little to change Washington. Under Trump I think Washington and civility have gotten worse. The only positive things about Trump is that our taxes are lower, the economy is substantially growing, so are wages, unemployment is at record lows, our trade deals are becoming fairer, North Korea has stopped firing rockets, and Europe is finally paying their fair share of NATO.

Trump, the Democrats and the Media are not likely to change in the near term. I guess we will have to wait until 2020 when people will either vote for Trump or someone else. Does anyone think that civility will return with another President?

Rhett Segall
3 weeks 6 days ago

Sirach 23:15 nails it: "A man who has the habit of abusive language will never mature in character as long as he lives." (NAB). This immaturity is not simple childishness; it's thwarting reverence for the dignity of the person(s) who are the recipients of our words. This reverence for the dignity of persons is the foundation of society as Fr. Malone's essay underscores.

Chuck Kotlarz
3 weeks 6 days ago

Civility and compromise perhaps are joined at the hip. Citizens United replaced compromise. Politicians and candidates inclined to compromise could face an election opponent backed by mega money. Why would any politician or candidate intentionally incur the wrath of mega money?

Voters United could counteract Citizens United. Voters United starts with a ninety percent tax rate on the top .001% incomes (earned, unearned, capital gain and inheritance income). With Voters United, candidates and politicians would focus more on voters and less on mega money.

rose-ellen caminer
3 weeks 5 days ago

Maybe the presidents combative boorishness is just what the doctor ordered for the 21st century .Though in defense of Trump, he is often also presidential and gracious, and has a sense of humor. More then the media who have attacked him five minutes after he was sworn in have ever been. They call that antagonism"balance of power"; it was never operative in the build up to the Iraq war I noticed. This "office of the president", that calls for a monarch ish reverence in a country that professes equality, has always struck me as a remnant of an atavistic nostalgia to worship the monarch. That the president is voted in and is term limited, does not tamp down this over the top reverence for a government post. It intensifies it actually, for logically we tell ourselves it cannot be true, as the president is voted in and term limited. But emotionally it is true. We fixate on the president as on our "king", though the person changes every 4 to 8 years .The actual power the president has is not warranted by this constant fixation. Court injunctions, over rulings , Congressional legislations override the president.Trump has knocked this too revered [imo] office off of it's pedestal. A fallout of Trumps being president is that people in all walks of life now are thinking about holding this office; "ordinary" people, not just the traditional lawyer/ politicians .That is how in a democracy of generally educated people, should work.

Bev Ceccanti
3 weeks 4 days ago

So do we sip high tea with purveyors of a holocaust ? Didn't Jesus throw out the money changers in a pretty dramatic way?. Sometimes the truth needs to be showcased, not mired in a bunch of political correctness. It's obvious Planned parenthood and Naral own today's Democratic Party. Revoking the Kavanaugh endorsement was a betrayal of human life and a supreme act of cowardice. I'll take boorishness in its stead any day of the week.

Charles Erlinger
3 weeks 2 days ago

We don’t elect leaders, we elect astute followers. Who do they follow? They follow us. Why do politicians carefully discern and identify wedge issues? So they can be used to segment voters and subject them to identification and enumeration. They then calculate which segments would be required to be satisfied by certain promises, and proceed to exploit the divisions by offering the promises that are most likely to attract the votes necessary to win the election. To expect that from the process we use, leaders will emerge who will impose or at least introduce civility into political discourse is irrational.

Our political system is very demanding. Its demands fall squarely and forcefully upon us. There is no sign that we are willing to demand behaviors of our follower-leaders that are different from those which we tolerate among ourselves.

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