Civility is just the start

By Sarah Ruger, vice president for free speech & peace

Solving the challenges America faces is hard work. It calls for nothing less than full-throated advocacy of our principles and a tireless commitment to discovering how best to realize them. Contempt, though, shouldn’t be confused with conviction.

A quick scan of headlines reveals more and more contempt taking the place of serious debate.

Advocates of recent federal voting legislation dismissed those who oppose it as “George Wallace”. Proponents of a state bill on K-12 instruction regarding sexual orientation and gender expression labeled opponents as “groomers”. School board leaders last fall broadly painted concerned parents as “domestic terrorists”. And state lawmakers explicitly called their opponents criminal earlier this year, saying they should be hanged.

Calling opponents racists or pedophiles – whichever side it’s coming from – demonizes the person targeted and robs others of the respect that’s necessary for good-faith debate. You can be both compelling and civil. These tactics are neither.

The environment in which this is taking place isn’t unrelated. Partisan divisions are sharpening. Scholars found that more than 42 percent of Americans in each party view their opposition as “downright evil,” according to the 2019 “Lethal Mass Partisanship” research. Little wonder the U.S. is the only established democracy where social trust is falling. In the early 1970s, half of Americans said that most people can be trusted. Today that’s dropped to less than a third.

Rhetoric that suggests political opponents aren’t just wrong, but wicked, aggravates those tendencies. Seeing the other side as morally bankrupt or less than human doesn’t just shut down productive debate, it increases the chance that tensions in our country and our communities will spill over into violence. Right before the 2020 election, researchers reported, “1 in 3 [Americans] now believe that violence could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals.”

We’ve seen it happen. After January 6th, it’s no longer unimaginable in this country. And we need a course correction.

These challenges won’t be solved by a single party or in one election cycle. Americans can take lessons from international conflict where sectarian violence is the norm. That includes encouraging public leaders to work across the aisle and adopt principles including:

  • Integrity & Courage: Telling the truth especially when it’s not easy to say or hear.
  • Civility & Respect: Debating issues rather than attacking individuals.
  • Collaboration: Bringing people together. Not asking people to compromise their principles but finding common ground among seemingly unlikely allies and working together to build policies that improve the lives of all Americans.
  • Understanding: Assuming good intent until there’s evidence to the contrary.

These are far from exhaustive. But they’re a start. They’re the kind of shared values that can bring together a broad-based movement that can fight against these destructive trends, model an alternative path forward, and collaborate to restore trust in each other and in our democracy.