Civility is a great and fragile good. Liberty allows our lips to flap. Common courtesy causes us to keep our mouths shut. Some bristle at the idea of political correctness. But without civility, political life becomes a fistfight.
Donald Trump recently said he would like to punch a protester in the face. Trump extolled “the old days” when a protester like that would be “carried out on a stretcher.” At an earlier rally, Trump repeated an obscene insult directed at Ted Cruz.
Opponents of Trump also use inflammatory rhetoric. More than one pundit has called Trump a fascist. The Fresno State student newspaper even ran a picture with Trump’s face imposed on Hitler’s body in front of the White House.
Political rhetoric often generates more heat than light. But we seem to be rounding a corner, where vulgarity and vitriol trump reasonable argument.
In some parts of the world, politics quickly becomes pugilistic. Fistfights have broken out in legislatures in Japan, Ukraine and elsewhere.
We like to think of ourselves as more evolved. But without civility, are we any better than Kosovo, where legislators set off tear gas bombs in parliament?
Civil and honest speech are essential for democratic life. But civility is not innate. It takes a lot of effort to teach kids to keep their mouths clean, their hands to themselves, and their minds focused on truth.
Pop culture and political life undermine these lessons. Fists and foul language are not normal or acceptable. Crude, rude and obnoxious behavior remains rare and exceptional. Most of the time, most people don’t exchange insults or threaten violence. Profanity and violence are not permitted in schools or in business meetings.
Our schools work hard to curtail bullying and create safe and civil places for children to thrive. Businesses require anti-harassment training. These lessons in political correctness work. Most of us behave civilly most of the time. Those who misbehave get suspended, fired, sued or jailed.
Fear of punishment is not the only thing guiding civil behavior. Most people don’t view life as a competition. We don’t use words as trump cards. We don’t focus on winning. Rather, we exchange ideas.
Civil people engage in dialogue in order to build community and seek understanding. Civil dialogue requires self-restraint and an open mind. An old saying says that we have two ears and one mouth because we ought to listen twice as much as we talk.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, including the right to be offensive. But civil people do not say everything that is on our minds. We learn to hold our tongues out of respect for decorum. This may sound old-fashioned and uptight. But tact and discretion are useful skills.
One kindergarten cliché has a kernel of truth: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” A more advanced lesson teaches us to speak low, speak slow, but always speak the truth.
Civil discourse is a fragile fruit, easily destroyed by hot air. One obnoxious boor can ruin a picnic, a party or a political season. Bullies and blowhards infect families, school and the workplace. They rarely stop talking long enough to listen. If they do pose a question, it is usually only to catch their breath in order to continue their harangue.
Bullies want an audience. Blowhards only blow when someone is listening. The best response is often avoidance. Most people have learned to ignore their ornery uncle, cranky colleague or noisome neighbor.
When avoidance is impossible, we can invoke the basic rules of the kindergarten classroom: don’t threaten violence, don’t call people names, tell the truth and be kind to strangers. A more advanced lesson teaches that civility keeps the peace, protects freedom, shows respect for humanity and helps us discover the truth.
Donald Trump has hinted that he can be more civil and play nice. He said that he would be “more presidential” when the time comes. That’s good news. Let’s hope the time comes soon. But until that happens, we should remind our kids that what they are seeing and hearing in the world of politics is behavior that would not be permitted in the boardroom or on the playground.