A Plea for Civility A statesman makes the case for mutual respect
Lyndon Olson '69, former U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, presented the
following speech on November 12, 2009, in Austin, when he was honored
by the Center for Public Policy Priorities with the Texas Legacy Award.
Thank you very much for this honor. I appreciate the kind remarks of my
friend Congressman Chet Edwards. I also appreciate the opportunity
today to talk to this distinguished group about a concern of mine. I
want to talk with you about civility, both in society in general and in
our politics in particular.
encourage you to think back…for some of us way back…to those report
cards we got in first grade. Most everyone had different type cards and
categories, but they were pretty much variations on the same basic
theme. I'm not talking about your arithmetic or reading or penmanship
grades. I'm talking about the comportment column, with things such as
exercises self-control . . . respects the rights of others . . . shows
kindness and consideration for others . . . indicates willingness to
cooperate . . . uses handkerchief (important even before the H1N1
virus) . . . and, my favorite was usually right up at the top of that
six-week report card and it's of particular significance to our
discussion . . . "Plays well with others."
We were being taught about and graded on one of the most fundamental
skills of our civilization: how to get along with others. There is a
reason that plays well with others was one of the first things we were
taught and evaluated on. And folks, I don't think we're getting a very
good grade on plays well with others these days. Many of us don't even
want to play with someone we don't like or agree with.
Where did all of this come from? In the majority of my life this hasn't
been the case. Those of us in this room over forty or fifty didn't grow
up in anything like this environment. We didn't live like this. Not in
our communities ... not in our politics. We lived in a political world
with strong feelings and positions, yes. And we took swings at each
other politically. But it didn't come down to the moral equivalent of
street brawls and knife fights. Politics has always been a contact
sport, but the conflict didn't permeate every aspect of our society and
rise to today's level of social and verbal hostility. It is very
unhealthy. And I'm not sure what to do about it. But I know it when I
see it and hear it. And I know it is time we focus as much attention on
our civil behavior as we do on achieving our personal and partisan
agendas. How we do that, I don't know. But I want to raise the issue,
ask the questions, and encourage you all to give it your consideration
We live in an era of rudeness, in society in general, in the popular
culture, and in our political life. Our culture today, in fact, rewards
incivility, crudeness, and cynicism. You can get on TV, get your own
talk show or reality series if you out-shout and offend the other guy.
Everyone screams, no one listens. We produce a lot of heat but little
light. The proclivity is to demonize our opponent. People don't just
disagree; the challenge to the other is a battle to the death.
Character assassination, verbal abuse, obnoxious behavior, and an
overbearing attention on scandal and titillation—all that isn’t just
reserved to day-time TV anymore—it's the currency of prime-time, of
late night, of cable news, of the Internet, and of society in general.
What happened to us? Should this be a sign of alarm? Is the problem
selfishness—we won't be denied, we must be immediately gratified? We
want everything we've ever seen in the movies? How do we live and get
along like our parents and their generation? They had to sacrifice.
They didn't get what they wanted when they wanted it. Is today's need
for instant gratification a problem?
We are more inclusive today…and that is a good thing—but has that good
made for increased tensions? Is it the twenty-four-hour news cycle? The
twenty-four-hour news cycle demands instantaneous news, which feeds off
of controversy, scandal, and easy answers to difficult questions. There
is scant time for reflection or reasoned analysis.
Market forces demand instantaneous information and jarring
entertainment values, not sober analysis or wisdom. The news media are
more prone to focus on the loudest, the most outrageous, and the most
partisan actors. And given the rise of the political consultant class,
candidates and campaigns are louder, more outrageous, and
meta-partisan. Political consultants have helped create a permanent
campaign where politics takes precedence over governance. The political
consultants egg on all this for profit, creating controversy where
little or none exists so the message, the theme of the day, is played
out on TV and the media. They're paid handsomely to cause strife and
create conflict in order to raise hackles, money, and attention,
fomenting issues to suit their agenda. It's all about the message, not
the solution, not the negotiation, the debate, the compromise to move
forward. It's about who is controlling the message, who is defining the
message, who is creating the message, who is keeping the conflict alive
often where none existed before the consultant decided one was needed.
Is this what keeps us at each other's throats?
Is it talk radio, attack TV? Is it the talk shows, the shout festivals
where absolute hyperbole is the only currency? Mean-spirited hyperbole
and hyperpartisanship breeds cynicism. Citizens are increasingly
cynical about politics and about their government's ability to work.
The damage to the ship of state, to the fabric of the nation begs
repair. Whose job is it to change course and effect the necessary
repairs? I'm not sure I have the answer to that, but I propose that in
a room full of policy makers and politicians, men and women who talk to
the media, who work in the public arena, who hire consultants, who set
agendas, maybe we have a role to play in making things better. You
know, I can say that there are some people in this room, people I
consider dear friends, who understand this problem and I believe share
my concern. To those friends I say, you and I both know that we
disagree very fundamentally on some very big issues but the truth is
that we could care less about our disagreements and are more concerned
about where we can find consensus and reasons to work and live together
to construct a better future. I consider this kind of commitment to
trust and open dialogue crucial to maintaining a sustainable society.
And indeed, isn't it about building a better future for our community,
for our country, for our children? I say that even on the most
intractable of issues, there is room for constructive debate, for
consensus building, for the search for some common ground. President
Johnson once said to his Democratic colleague, Gov. George Wallace of
Alabama, during the crisis of civil rights in the South: "What do you
want left behind? You want a great, big marble monument that says,
'George Wallace: He built.' Or do you want a little piece of scrawny
pine lying there that says, 'George Wallace: He hated'"?
The people I know in this room are builders. But we're confronting a
world today where hate seems to be a predominant factor in the crisis
of incivility confronting our politics. Where are the rules that govern
conduct? What happens eventually after this continuous rancor tears the
fabric of our society completely asunder? Can we survive with this
tenor—taking no prisoners, giving no quarter? I'm asking these
questions because you folks here are blessed with skills, talent,
experience and a commitment to a positive public policy. You understand
the importance of maintaining and protecting our commonweal where we
strive to serve our clients, our community, our country, and our state.
If civil discourse self-destructs, we cannot move on the issues that
matter. Think of this as an environmental crisis, the environment being
our civil society and our very ability to live and work and prosper
together. I don't want to sound pious or preachy here, but if we are to
prevail as a free, self-governing people, we must work together. We
shouldn't try to destroy our opponents just because we disagree. We
have to govern our tongues. The book of Proverbs tells us, chapter 18,
verse 12, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." How we
choose to use words—for good or for wrong—is clearly our choice. The
health of our democracy depends upon a robust public discourse.
Recognize that I am not saying that conflict in our political life is
to be avoided. Hardly so. It is not only proper but necessary for
candidates to vigorously debate the issues of our day and examine their
opponents' records. Don't let people confuse civility with goody
two-shoes niceness and mere etiquette. Civility is a robust, tough,
substantive civic virtue, critical to both civil society and the future
of our republic. Civility entails speaking directly, passionately, and
responsibly about who we are and what we believe. Divisions based on
principles are healthy for the nation. Vigorous and passionate debate
helps us to define issues and to sharpen positions.
Conflict cannot, should not be avoided in our public lives any more
than we can avoid conflict with the people we love. But just as member
of a household, as a family learn ways of settling their differences
without inflicting real damage on each other, so we, in our politics,
must find constructive ways of resolving disputes and differences.
Our work is here. We build from the base. We will foster change first
by our example . . . by working together, respecting one another, and
negotiating our differences in good faith and with mutual respect.
Civility is neither a small nor inconsequential issue. The word comes
from the French civilité which is often translated as "politeness." But
it means much more. It suggests an approach to life…living in a way
that is civilized. The words "civilized," "civilité," and "city" share
a common etymology with a word meaning "member of the household." To be
civilized is to understand that we live in a society as in a household.
There are certain rules that allow family members to live peacefully
within a household. So, too, are there rules of civility that allow us
to live peacefully within a society. As we all learned in first grade a
long time ago, we owe certain responsibilities to one another. Perhaps
we spend a lifetime learning how to play well with others. So be it. It
is a crucial goal for a civil society. Thank you.