When Incivility Rules

In recent days, many people have urged me to write about the acrimonious and divisive public discourse that has gripped the nation around health care. But each time someone has made this request, I found that they themselves would engage in some form of incivility. The question is: Where are we right now, and where do we want to go?Whether you like the legislation or not, the passage of the historic health care bill has revealed glimpses of the worst in us. You’ll remember that much of the nation’s discord hit a noticeable low during last summer’s infamous town hall meetings. Perhaps then we thought the worst of our lousy discourse was over; and yet now we know that assumption would have been wrong. In just the past week we’ve reached new lows as we’ve witnessed the spewing of homophobic and racist comments, and with some congressional members being labeled “baby killers.”I hear such comments and wonder what has gotten into those who utter them, those who repeat them, and those who egg others on. Yes, we’ve heard such hatred at times in the past; but does that fact make such comments good and right now? And what makes matters worse today is our ability to communicate at any moment and reach millions of people at once. One ugly comment then begets another, and on and on it goes.

During the 1990s, I was not one of those in the civic world who embraced what might have been deemed the “civility movement.” I cringed when people would associate my own work and efforts with civility. I thought there was a kind of Miss Manners’ notion at play – if only each of us would be “nice” to one another, then the world would be a better place. But political discourse ought to be filled with tension, drama, and emotion; after all, when people care about something, they get worked up.

But that was then, and this is now. Today, our public discourse seems filled with hatred and rage, at times unmitigated and unfiltered, even reckless, often ridiculous. The Glenn Beck’s of the world lather people up into a tizzy, oftentimes seeming to have forgotten their original point, other than to destroy their so-called opponent. Those on the left are not immune from such criticism either.

But perhaps the larger point is that none of us are immune – that is, those who purport to want to move the country forward, and those who cherish some semblance of good, if not heated, public discourse. So many of the people who asked me to write this piece did so, themselves, using the word “hate” or “stupid” or “idiot” in the same sentence as their request – as in, “I hate those stupid idiots who say….”

There’s enough hatred to go around these days; there’s also ample belief that the person on the other side of the debate from us is just plain stupid – perhaps even an idiot. But we don’t gain anything by engaging in such discourse. In fact, we lose something each time we go down that ugly path. No one individual controls public discourse; but each of us contributes to it.

No one can put a halt to the hatred we are now witnessing; but none of us has to help in its spread. No one should stop expressing their heart-felt emotions about something as important as health care; but none of us should believe that anything goes in public discourse.

Our negative comments spread like a contagion, gaining more and more momentum when left unchecked, and can leave us sick to our stomach and doubled-over. It’s time to swear off such comments and stand-up straight. So here’s a test I urge you to consider: When you make your point, do so with as much emotion and tension as necessary, but can we leave the hatred behind?