President Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sent the internet into a frenzy after this week’s State of the Union address with twin acts of incivility. Before his speech, Trump seemingly declined to shake Pelosi’s hand after she extended it, and, at the end of the speech, Pelosi tore her copy of Trump’s remarks in half.
Incivility in our politics isn’t exactly new: Over the years, lawmakers in Congress have seen canings, brawls, death by duel, and tarring and feathering. So, then, the pair’s actions weren’t the most uncivil conduct on record, but the antics still are not acceptable. In fact, Trump and Pelosi are setting awful examples for their supporters, considering we’re more divided than ever. Some experts estimate that political polarization is at its worst since the Civil War, and childish feuds aren’t helping.
History tells us that we can’t afford to disregard civility during hardship or partisan disputes.
Indeed, a look to the past shows us how fragile our system of government is, and civility is the necessary social glue that binds us together in times of adversity. This is because true civility requires a fundamental respect for human dignity. Injustices from our past and present illustrate the consequences of failing to recognize the humanity and value of every person, especially for those we really don’t like, those who can’t benefit us, and those with whom we strongly disagree.
Unfortunately, though, it often seems that people’s willingness to defend or condemn instances of incivility today depends entirely on whether the offender is a member of the right political tribe.
If you’re not on my team, the logic goes, then your incivility is an unforgivable affront to common decency, but, if you are, then your incivility is for a greater good and is therefore justified. It’s also becoming more and more common to hear that we are in a post-civility era — the stakes are simply far too high to care about pleasantries and niceties, some say.
Of course, thinking back to the barbaric canings and brawls, this willingness to dispense with common courtesies is nothing new in history, but it’s nonetheless troubling, as civility is also necessary in particular for our unique system of limited government to thrive. Indeed, sincere civility promotes the equality, tolerance, and self-governance necessary for such a system to succeed.
We live out our national credo that “all men are created equal” when we act civilly, and we should be proud that we rejected the rules and social norms of the old aristocratic world of Europe where people were bound to a certain rank from birth to death and were always expected to defer to their social superiors.
Civility entails tolerance.
When we disagree, civility is how we can peacefully live together in spite of our disagreement. Reasonable minds can peacefully disagree, and, indeed, true civility means that even unreasonable minds deserve some basic level of respect. This is because, again, our disagreement doesn’t negate our value as people. Our national motto is, “E pluribus unum”: Out of many, one. When you have a lot of people living in a nation together, there will be differences and discord, but we ought to be connected and unified by our common humanity.
Lastly, civility is necessary to our democracy because it encourages self-governance.
A free society of diverse individuals can function without strict governmental restraints on behavior only when individuals exercise self-restraint and selflessness, when they act well even when they have the opportunity not to. Holding the door open for the person behind us, standing in line instead of jumping to the front of the queue, and resisting the urge to cut someone off in traffic, even though we may be in a hurry. When too many of us fail to exercise self-restraint and common courtesy, people will begin calling for the government to restrain us through burdensome laws and regulations.
Civility, then, is essential to our democracy. In recognizing this, we understand that our everyday interactions matter, whether the entire nation is watching, such as at the State of the Union, or whether no one is paying attention at all. For the sake of our nation, it’s imperative that more of our national leaders realize this in the days to come.
Alexandra Hudson (@LexiOHudson) is an Indianapolis-based writer, a 2020 Novak fellow, and a Young Voices contributor. She is writing a book on civility and American civic renewal.