Restoring civility

In a recent lecture at the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins suggested that we, as a people, turn the mirror on ourselves when we wonder about the divisiveness, animosity and loss of civility that pervade public discourse and interaction from the halls of the U.S. Senate to the smallest communities in our nation. Collins addressed the following question: “Is the hyperpartisanship that grips Washington a symptom or the cause of the incivility that we see throughout our society?” But her probing and thoughtful comments said a great deal about the role our society plays in that dysfunction and were deserving of far greater attention than they have received.

Collins suggested that our growing tendency to align ourselves with people who think as we do is an example of Washington reflecting society, as both the Republican and Democratic caucuses have less and less to do with each other.

“From how we recreate, to what we think and even to where we live, America appears to be pulling apart into factions,” said Maine’s senior senator. “We are isolating ourselves from those who aren’t just like ourselves.”

And indeed, we need look no further than the ubiquitous Internet for ready examples of the excesses that breed incivility and distrust. For all of its potential to bring people together, the Internet too often has had the opposite effect. Studies find that it is displacing face-to-face contact and providing almost unlimited opportunity for anonymous taunting, unfounded and intemperate criticism, ugly and false statements, and bullying. In the political arena, websites devoted to political and social issues increasingly tend to the extremes, where alternative views are either ignored, or misrepresented and ridiculed. Likewise, radio and television talk shows thrive on attack and controversy rather than thoughtful examination of the complex national and global issues that confront us all.

In her lecture, Collins was quick to assert that civility does not require us to stifle our disagreements. But even in vigorous debate, she said, “there is a right way and a wrong way to have these disagreements.” That right way, said Collins, was exemplified by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith in her “Declaration of Conscience” speech of 65 years ago, when she condemned the accusations, fear-mongering and name-calling that were the destructive hallmarks of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “History has judged these two approaches and declared a clear winner.”

Collins, who has earned a well-deserved reputation for forging bipartisan agreements among her colleagues, hopes to restore in the Senate “a culture that embraces patience, persuasion and perseverance.” To that end, she recently hosted the first of what she hopes will be several bipartisan Senate lunches this year.

But whether Washington leads the nation in incivility or merely reflects society, said Collins, all of us can play an important role in elevating the level of discourse in our own homes, schools and communities. “That means working in your community for a renewed social climate characterized by civility and respect for differing viewpoints,” she said.

All of us – if we choose – can disagree without being disagreeable. We would do well to follow Collins’ lead and urge our educators and politicians; ministers, priests and rabbis; and our families, friends and neighbors to recognize the problem and begin the process of building civility and patience into our daily lives.

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