Return to civility

  • September 5, 2012
Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none.” But 250 years later Franklin’s wise words have been turned upside down. Public discourse today is often about being enemies to many and civil to few.

That is increasingly evident in our media, homes, schools and even churches, but is particularly true in our political dialogue. Intelligent, civil debate has been bludgeoned to death by crass, dishonest personal attacks that demean the political process and alienate voters.

For that reason, the Knights of Columbus and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan are to be commended for promoting civility as an issue in the American presidential election. It’s about time people of influence told political leaders to smarten up.

Dolan has asked the Republican and Democratic candidates for president and vice-president to sign a Knights of Columbus petition seeking a return to civility in politics. That includes refraining from personal attacks for the duration of the campaign.

No doubt the cardinal realizes this is a tough sell. But it is one well worth pitching. There is a close connection in any society between civility and morality. People must first treat each other with respect and decency in order to advance those values across society as a whole. Cynical politicians create soulless governments that pursue selfish agendas rather than advance the common good.

That is as true in Canada as it is in the United States. On this mud-ward slide, Canadian politicians are tumbling right behind their American counterparts.

Dolan may not have been speaking to Canada but we should be listening anyway.

“We need to remind those running for office and those in office that how we disagree with each other says as much about us as a nation as what issues we disagree on,”said Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus.

For that reason, the Knights launched a Civility in America campaign to remind society in general and politicians in particular of the Christian ethos to act always with respect and dignity towards others. It is a non-partisan campaign developed after a survey showed 74 per cent of Americans believe political campaigns are increasingly negative and 66 per cent believe candidates spend more time attacking opponents than discussing issues.

“Candidates aren’t running to become the next American Idol,” Anderson said. “They are running to become our public servants. They ought to behave in a manner that keeps faith with that goal.”

Spirited debate and disagreement are signs of a healthy society. But dialogue must be conducted with civility. Otherwise conversation becomes confrontation and society is demeaned. We all have a stake in making courtesy common again.

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