Updated: August 23, 2012 10:32AM
I cannot precisely define civility, but I know when it is missing from our discussions on politics, religion, social issues. That is easy, because it is absent most of the time.
The country is in a funk. Candidates raise and spend millions telling us stuff that is either wrong or badly bent, and if we like what they say we cheer and call for more.
Civility is being eroded not just because of our people in Washington, but because of us — we are a big part of the problem. We have distorted the art of listening to people who don’t agree with us, because obviously they are wrong. We are on the negativism binge. Most of us anyway — let those of us who are without sin (see, I can quote the Bible) stand up and be counted.
Some of the people who are supposed to represent us in Washington don’t like one another and their big goal is to vote down ideas that come from the other side. They are like kids on the playground who threaten to take the ball and bat and go home.
What we are getting is an absolute aversion to compromise. In 1776, John Adams wrote that he feared the Continental Congress would make decisions dictated “by noise, not sense; by meanness, not greatness; by ignorance, not learning.” But decency and respect won out — our current crop of politicians should read their history.
An item in the AARP Bulletin says that Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Adams did not like one another, but they set aside their differences and achieved greatness for the nation. It can be done if politicians care, but many apparently do not.
They might care more if we demanded it.
We shut our minds to opposing views — even friends cannot discuss politics, religion and other issues that touch us all. We want to persuade, not explain, to talk, not to listen. I reckon that we can still talk about the Cubs, the price of gasoline, the quality of magazines in doctors’ waiting room — stuff like that.
The presidential campaign will get nastier and less civil with each speech and costly ad. Civility is not on the political agenda, here or in the seats of power.
A newspaper story talked about the vulgarisms that some politicians use in their speeches. Maybe they think that will help them relate to us, you know, “The American People.” Maybe they think that we want negativism, half-truths, vulgarisms, insults. Are they right?
I am an old guy — not old enough to remember Thomas Jefferson, but I can recall times when politicians blustered, but often compromised and did their work. Maybe we can blame this mess on computers, or steroids, or the high price of tickets to a ball game. Maybe it is in the water.
In a recent column I wrote that folks back home when I was a kid did not always agree, but they disagreed with civility.
Somehow, a fellow in Houston saw that and he called me. Tomas Spath and another Presbyterian minister co-founded “The Institute for Civility in Government.” It is non-partisan. Maybe they can help us find the lost civility gene. They have a high mountain to climb and they will need help.
They can be reached on the Internet at www.instituteforcivility.org.