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Civility Essential For A Healthy Democracy

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Our divided nation stands even more at odds in these days following the Democratic Party controlled U.S. House Judiciary Committee voting to send articles of impeachment for a full House vote. That vote is scheduled to take place this week with a Senate trial to follow.

There are two realities in America today.

One among supporters who believe that their president can do no wrong and that the Democrats are out of control in their pursuit to undo the 2016 election through impeachment.

The other reality exits for Americans who believe our country is led by a would-be dictator who believes he is above the law and has committed impeachable offenses in pressuring Ukraine to falsely accuse a political opponent of wrongdoing.

What chance there might have been for Americans to debate not just the grounds for impeachment, but every aspect of American governance, seems to be at an irretrievable end. We seem to have lost any semblance of the ability to have a civil conversation.

Civility says I will listen to you. Civility says we can disagree, but that we will respect each other. Civility doesn’t require me to agree with you, just accept that you hold a different perspective and try to understand what’s behind it. Civility is based on the belief that we can reach a compromise that will create a “more perfect union.”

To reach that mutual understanding both sides must acknowledge a basic set of facts based in science, common sense, observation, study, conversation and open-mindedness. Frustration builds when facts we all should agree on become the kindling for partisan bonfires where truth goes up in flames. That is where we are today. It’s all or nothing. It’s win or there will be an uprising. It’s agree with my world view or you will be faced with death threats. “My wife sometimes marks the time of how long we’ve been out of office with how long we’ve gone without death threats,” former Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said of his life away from Washington, D.C. He didn’t run for re-election in 2018.

There has been a steady coursing of political conversation and the destruction of faith in our fundamental institutions of democracy - our courts, our elections, and our national intelligence services. Last week the president called members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation “scum.” Faithful civil servants who dedicate their lives to making government here and abroad work are villainized.

Our president’s use of profanity at rallies is not uncommon. His demeaning of every person who opposes him is a requirement. When crowds are urged to follow his lead, how do you think they walk out of a rally and then talk with a neighbor who may have different political beliefs? How do the adults who walk out of the rallies teach their children the concept of civil conversation?

We understand that many who support Trump wish he would stick to policy, quit Twitter, and clean up his language. They see his policies on trade, immigration, and the economy good for America. Yet, with Trump, you get the package deal.

 “Civility doesn’t mean we all pretend to agree; it isn’t ‘niceness, that papers over disagreements. Differences matter — and we should debate them openly and freely. But how we debate, not only what we debate, also matters,” Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar with the Freedom Forum writes.

Social critic and Christian writer Os Guinness looks at how Americans live together despite deep religious, political and ideological differences in his book The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It.

“Civility, argues Guinness, doesn’t stifle debate or dissent. On the contrary, genuine civility ‘helps to strengthen debate because of its respect for the truth, yet all the while keeping debate constructive and within bounds because of its respect for the rights of other people and for the common good,’” Haynes quotes him.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks has suffered the hatred of those who disagree with his writings that question Trump’s policies, temperament and leadership. He has struggled with how to reply to these people when they scream at him and his family in public. His answer may seem too demanding today.

The “…more I think about it, the more I agree with the argument Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter made in his 1998 book “Civility.” The only way to confront people with angry, fixed views is with love, he says. Ask questions to understand their points of view.
“Paraphrase what they say so they know they’ve been heard. Show some ultimate care for their destiny and soul even if you detest the words that come out of their mouths.

Engage “with love, first, for your own sake. If you succumb to the natural temptation to greet this anger with your own anger, you’ll just spend your days consumed by bitterness and revenge. You’ll be a worse person in all ways,” Brooks wrote of Carter’s advice.

A number of polls have shown that Americans are concerned about the growing lack of civility in our culture. They fear it will lead to violence. They are right. Hate crimes have been on the rise.

“It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side,” Brooks’ colleague at the Times Nick Kristoff writes. “Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilization.”

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