Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New Levels of Incivility Undermine U.S. Democracy, Culture


Our nation’s hallmark virtues of vigorous public debate, unfettered freedom of speech and of the press, and unfiltered self-expression make us strong, free and uniquely American. But the recent plunge to new depths of incivility by high-profile music, sports and political figures has quite the opposite effect.

USA Today’s front page story today highlights recent outbursts by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, who interrupted President Obama’s address to Congress to shout, “You lie;” tennis great Serena William’s expletive-laden verbal assault on a line judge; and hip hop star Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Music Video Awards to argue that Beyonce should have won.

As Jeffrey Slee wrote recently in Newsroom Magazine, “It’s such a simple concept; don’t interrupt when someone else has the floor, play nicely with others, share and wait your turn. It’s what we all should have learned in kindergarten.”

We can disagree without demonizing the person with whom we disagree, be it a line judge or the President of the United States. The tenor of the ongoing national health care debate, with critics of the President’s plan calling him alternately a socialist and a fascist, is as frightening as it is uninformed. Opposing the plan is one thing; whipping up personalized attack-based hysteria is another.

Closer to home, Florida’s ongoing dialogue about whether to lift the decades-old ban on energy exploration off our coast has prompted opponents of the idea to resort to ugly personal attacks. It should still be possible to discuss an issue on the merits, even ones as important as oil drilling or health care reform, without maligning the character of those who engage the conversation.

A return to civility strengthens the democracy we all support, regardless of our political affiliation or stand on any one issue. As Abraham Lincoln said, “In times like the present, men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.”

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