The Need for Civility

It is no secret that America is deeply divided. According to a Washington Post article from October 2017, seven out of ten Americans say the nation’s political divisions are at least as big as during the Vietnam War. Shockingly, one out of three of us has lost a close friend this year due to political differences. U.S. politics are widely distrusted, revealing growing tensions extending into our nation’s social fabric. There is profound pessimism and distrust of our leaders with their inability to compromise for the greater good. These divides are real and must be addressed lest we lose a real distinctive of American civil society, an ability to live with our differences. J.D. Vance in his bestseller “Hillbilly Eulogy” is useful in helping understand how we got to our present impasse. Such fractures have been slowly evolving over some time.

But I am hopeful…yes, I know it is not popular to say, but I think we are on the verge of rediscovering the genius of our Founders and the American ideal. While doing my academic research in England some years back, I observed a period in 18th century England, pre-Victorian days, not dissimilar to our own. During that period, until serious reforms began in the 1820s and for the next 40 years, a dark shadow enveloped industrial England. The culture was extremely coarse and corrupt with women, children and even animals, widely abused with slavery central to the English economy. Yet a small band of high-minded leaders called the Clapham Sect started a social revolution that altered British society with protections put in place for many unprotected groups. Its crowning achievement was the abolition of the slave trade decades before America in 1833. Change can occur when people of good will and faith decide to address their circumstances.

I am reminded, for instance, of the incredible social shift in behavior which occurred when several mothers who had lost children to drunk drivers said, ‘enough is enough.’ Everything changed and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, was born. History is replete with other such examples of acts of moral courage against the odds. I think of the fourth century monk, Telemachus, who was stoned to death when he interceded to stop a violent gladiatorial fight in the Roman coliseum. His bravery cost him dearly. Yet the Emperor Honorius was so impressed with the monk’s courage that he banned such violence with January 1, 404 marking the last known gladiatorial contest. An individual can make a difference!

Attached is a fascinating speech by my former boss, James Baker, former White House chief of staff and Secretary of both the Treasury and Department of State. He gives voice to the urgency of rediscovering civility in our times. Also, be aware, that thanks to Secretary John Dalton and Margaret, PathNorth has launched a Civility Initiative hoping to light a candle in celebration of listening and understanding.