A Prescription for Democracy: Be Civil

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The Fall-Winter 2008 issue of Oregon Humanities is all about civility–that virtue too often confused with its less polished cousin, politeness. That’s a shame, Amanda Waldroupe argues in her feature article “Not Rocking the Boat,” since politeness is the Great Destroyer of democracy–hamstringing intellectual exchange–whereas “civil conversation” gives us “the opportunity to. . . critically discuss and fully understand a political issue.”

“In [civil] conversations,” Waldroupe writes, “we are not necessarily polite, but we do have respect for the other’s political positions and opinions. Neither party thinks that the opposing view is necessarily illegitimate or flat-out wrong. Rather, each willingly makes an effort to understand the premises of the other’s views.”

Waldroupe’s assertion evokes something now-Vice President Joe Biden said back on the campaign trail, during his debate with Governor Sarah Palin. The question posed was how each candidate would endeavor to “bring both sides together,” how he or she would “change the tone” in Washington. Biden answered by sharing a vivid lesson he learned in his first year in the Senate: Don’t question people’s motives. Question their judgment.

In other words: Be civil.

This isn’t just a critical lesson for Washington, however, it’s an ethos equally employable in cities and neighborhoods, among family and friends, even around the lowly kitchen table. When President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address, he asked Americans to embrace “a new era of responsibility–a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.” That starts with coming together, and coming together starts with civility.

For more sage advice on how we can talk (meaningfully!) when we disagree, check out our Nov.-Dec. 2007 issue, when I had a chance to catch up with Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. Plus, in our next issue (March-April 2009), I’ll be writing about reconnecting the public with its public servants.

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