A Change of Season

Throughout the ages, spring has been celebrated as a time of renewal and new life. In the city I call home, between bouts of rain and the occasional frost, daffodils, crocuses, and tulip magnolias are back in bloom. This spring, as we find ourselves surrounded by vitriolic rhetoric in our public and political discourse, I find myself wishing that the change of season will bring a change in tone, and a renewal of civility. Those who lead have a special obligation to set the tone for our nation. In this time of sound-byte sensationalism and reality-TV politics, if there were ever a need for civility, that time is now.

To some, civility may seem a bit old-fashioned, a kind of etiquette that was once quaint but is no longer relevant to the way we live now. However, civility means a lot more than respectful discourse. Civility shares its roots with the word civilization, "an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached." Notice the word "advanced." Civility is not a relic of days gone by; it is at the very heart of an advanced, sustainable democracy. Therefore, it's urgent to think about its role in our current public discourse, and what this implies for us as a nation after the dust of our presidential campaign battles has settled.

In contrast to many of today's media pundits, there was a time when public intellectuals could disagree with each other without shouting past each other. Substantive issues could be discussed without facts being taken out of context or polls being used to obscure instead of illuminate. Instead of brandishing their opinions like weapons in combat, public intellectuals were expected to be knowledgeable about current issues, so they could advance the dialogue beyond boundaries of partisanship, geography, and socio-economic status.

William Manning Marable was this kind of public intellectual. Marable was professor of public affairs, history, and African American studies at Columbia University, but his reach extended far beyond the ivory towers of academia. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his comprehensive biography of Malcolm X, and also contributed his vigorous intellectual energy to using hip-hop for social change, reforming the New York state curriculum regarding the slave trade, and debating the merits and flaws of Afrocentrism. As a public intellectual, he was engaged without being enraged, a voice of civility who never relinquishing his lifelong commitment to progressive social causes.

I find myself remembering this kind of integrity when I consider the Flint water crisis. As a former resident of Flint, I have more than a passing interest in the unfolding and discourse surrounding lead-poisoned water. While there is plenty of finger pointing from all sides, when the media moves, as it always does, the children and families of Flint are left to suffer the long-term consequences.

Instead of playing the blame game, a civil discourse would have at its center what concrete steps we can now take to alleviate the suffering caused by this disaster, thoroughly comprehend its causes, and prevent it from ever happening again. This is the kind of civility that is the foundation of a responsive and responsible democracy. The biggest, most pressing issues of our time must be tackled by finding common ground, not by hurling insults and passing blame. How these issues are discussed and debated is critical to the survival of an inclusive democracy. Nothing less is at stake.

As a nation, our political and public discourse is a profound lesson in Civics, both for our children and for the rest of the world. It is a lesson from which we can choose to learn or be doomed to repeat past mistakes.

  1. We can disagree without seeing each other as the enemy. In a democracy, it's a given that we will not agree on many important issues we face. But as soon as we decide to label those with whom we disagree as enemies, we stop listening to whatever they are saying. Like children, we put our fingers in our ears to block out the sound of what we don't want to hear. Yet civility cannot thrive without genuine dialogue, and genuine dialogue requires that we listen.
  2. Not all issues are partisan. We have allowed the loud voices of polarization to dominate quiet common sense. This is not surprising, given the prevalence of partisan spin on so many issues, especially those concerning race and political affiliation. Public discourse does not have to be a constant partisan battle of tribal warfare with words. Fear does not have to trump common sense.
  3. A strong democracy depends on strong commitment from its citizens to build upon the good. Without civility in our public discourse, there is a strong tendency to focus on the bad: when it bleeds, it leads. Incivility may bring higher ratings and generate higher ad revenues during the presidential campaign, but it also does long term damage to the fabric of our democracy. By focusing on the worst, it's that much easier to abdicate responsibility for the good we can do. The preamble to our Constitution begins with words we can never afford to forget: "We, the people." In a democracy, we are the people, and we must all share in taking responsibility for whatever happens to us as a people.

Civility is something we model for the rest of the world, for our children, and for future generations. During this election year alone, more than 4 billion dollars will be spent on television ads. Imagine the good that could be done for the children in Flint, for all America's children, with that kind of money. The eyes of the world are on us. The elections will come and go, but the seeds of incivility bear bitter fruit. Do we really want to spend the next four years reaping that harvest?