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Civility Starts With Me

Guest column: How we can lower the volume on political animosity?

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Illustration by Anna Donlan

“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, get out.” Those words by Lieutenant General Jay Silveria, spoken in the halls of the U.S. Air Force Academy last month, quickly reverberated around the Internet.

They struck a chord because they were unambiguous. The simplest lessons, the ones we learned in kindergarten, are often the most profound. After all, Thumper said it first: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Silveria’s words resonated with me as someone whose been struggling to find civility in public discourse amongst a cacophony of incivility. Where has the civil discourse gone? And, more importantly, what has been my role in its disappearance?

Today, conversations seem coarser. Emotions more raw. Language more brutal. You can blame talk radio, cable news, redistricting, social media, campaign finance laws, the news cycle—the list is long. But shows and laws and tweets can’t bear responsibility alone.

After Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a 2011 constituent event in Tucson, political vitriol against her was cited as a motivating factor. At the time, political PACs targeting Giffords had sent out mailers with rifle scope cross hairs on her name and her district. It was a little too on the nose. It was too much like the John F. Kennedy “Wanted for Treason” flyer handed out in Dallas in the days before the president’s 1963 assassination. In the aftermath of the Giffords’ shooting, amidst the outrage, analysis, and the devastation, a public dialogue emerged about the importance of civility, respect, and understanding the weight of our words. It was a desperately needed and well-timed conversation. And it’s one we need again.

At the beginning of the 115th Congress in January, the incoming freshmen members of Congress gathered together and made a “commitment to civility.” It’s as if they somehow knew it would be a challenge this year. Or perhaps they saw the challenges of the 2016 election season and knew the game had somehow changed. They signed their names and made this pledge to show “proper respect to one another and all others, encouraging productive dialogue, and modeling civility in our public and private actions.”

Then, in June, another congressman, Steve Scalise, was shot—this time while at practice for a charity baseball game. Members of Congress came together, recommitted to the civility pledge, and added their names alongside the freshman. Briefly, there was bipartisan unity.

Flowers, candles and chalk-written messages surround a photograph of Heather Heyer on the spot where she was killed and 19 others injured when a car slammed into a crowd of people protesting against a white supremacist rally, August 16, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the weeks after that came the white nationalist march in Charlottesville and the death of a counter-protestor, the controversies over National Football League players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice—police brutality against black people in particular—and the numerous other incidents which have sparked our year of incivility.

Scalise, to thunderous, bipartisan applause, recently returned to the House Chamber after four months of surgeries and rehabilitation. He thanked his fellow members for their love, support, and encouragement during his recovery. For a moment, we were again united.

Why does a member of Congress have to get shot for us to have a conversation about civility? Why do hate crimes have to be a reminder to treat people with dignity and respect?

Words have power. We must use them to persuade, not bludgeon. I’m not suggesting there won’t be, or shouldn’t be, conflict. We are diverse people with different backgrounds, ideas, goals, ambitions, and dreams. Our ability to openly debate and protest and argue are fundamental to our First Amendment right. But we shouldn’t treat the other side of an argument—or the other side of the political aisle—as the enemy.

Each of us has an individual responsibility to acknowledge our role in changing the dialogue. Words matter and each of us has the opportunity—the responsibility, reallyto use each one carefully.

The bottom line is this: Civility starts with me.

Jenifer Sarver is an Austin-based communications consultant. Opinions expressed by Texas Monthly guest columnists are their own.

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  • WUSRPH

    It is truly unfortunate that more people will not read this or even sadder that some of them who do will not listen to the message……We must find a way to live in this society without increasing the levels of hate and fear….watching what we say and how we say may be only a small step in that direction….but a vital one.
    PS This includes a certain potential Democratic candidate for the US Senate who seems to have a compulsion to drop what are called “F-Bombs” into his speeches…..He—and we–can make our points without apparently bending over to (or make it at least appear) that we live at the lowest common denominator.

    • roadgeek

      I concur. Well said.

      • SpiritofPearl

        Geek – the king of negativity . . .

        • Jed

          it’s OK to be a racist hater, just don’t use mean (or big) words.

          • WUSRPH

            It is never okay to be a racist hater. But one. need not descend to that level of behavior to combat them.

          • Jed

            Well we’ve seen what being nice did for the democrats (the who?).

    • SpiritofPearl

      You can’t see the forest for the trees . . .

      • WUSRPH

        I am sorry but you do not have to be crude to even insult someone….as the North Koreans did recently when they called Trump a “dotard”….It probably forced the WH staff to get out a copy of the Oxford Unabridged….but the point was made….I am sorry if Beto O’Rourke seems to think that being crude makes him seem “authentic” or gives power to his words….while at it does is suggest that he is either incapable of using the English or too intellectually lazy to try to use it correctly.

        • SpiritofPearl

          It is true that a well-chosen word is better than a vulgarity. The issue is: Will you vote for Ted Cruz just because his opponent uses the F-Bomb in public?

          • donuthin2

            The F-bombs are certainly not as vulgar, in my mind, as Trump or for that matter Cruz. But then again, I think O’Rourke would be just as effective without them.

          • SpiritofPearl

            I agree, but his governing philosophy is what matters.

          • WUSRPH

            Of course I won’t vote for Cruz….but that does not mean that I have to do anything for O’Rourke….

          • Jed

            replace cruz and o’rourke with trump and clinton in that sentence, and … scene.

      • anonyfool

        This sort of purity test guarantees no one is going to be good enough.

  • John Bernard Books

    Sadly, democrats are losing power and will do anything to win…..its called the ends justifies the means. Saul Alinsky wrote about it in Rules for radicals.
    The dems favorite prez LBJ:
    “Johnson, it’s said, wanted to spread the story that his opponent liked to have sex with barnyard animals. One of LBJ’s aides said, “We can’t prove he’s a pig f—-r.”
    “I know that,” replied Johnson. “I just want to hear him deny it.”
    http://jamillerrampant.blogspot.com/2006/06/i-just-want-to-hear-him-deny-it_27.html

    In a recent local election the dems ran a smear campaign against a seated candidate. A local leader called out the dem chairman for his tactics and his response was, “its only politics.”

    Dems don’t see issues from from right or wrong they see it from legal not legal or can we get away with it.

    It will only get worse….

  • SeeItMyWay

    I’m sorry to be the first to simply say that this thread might be the most sophmoric ever posted on this site.

    Is this where the new ownership at TM is taking us?

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    • John Bernard Books

      yes, the Hobbys have bought TM and it appears their intention is resort to old time dem styled politics where dems considered their voters to be dumber than rocks. Like Wassup.

  • anonyfool

    Is Scalise used as unintended irony here? One of the officers that saved Scalise is a lesbian and Scalise has now continued his anti lesbian/gay ways.

    • SpiritofPearl

      Scalise is brainwashed and has lost his soul.

  • Randall Stevens

    Heather Heyer was morbidly obese and, according to her own equally obese mother, died of a heart attack and was not killed. Please pretend to be a journalist and actually report a fact for once.

    • WUSRPH

      Of course, being run over by a car driven by a White Supremacist who drove into a crowd might not have helped her health that much.

      • Randall Stevens

        She wasn’t hit by a car. Try watching a video.

        • SpiritofPearl

          I did. She was, as were many others.

        • BCinBCS

          You’re right Randall, she didn’t die from being hit by a car.
          Instead, she died from:
          a heart attack;
          a drug overdose;
          a false-flag operation by the antifa;
          a conspiracy by the Illuminati;
          a CIA black-ops;
          a publicity generator by the liberal press.

          We all know that there actually was no car on that sidewalk.
          /s

          • dave in texas

            I’m not saying it was aliens…but it was aliens.

    • SpiritofPearl

      Donald Trump is also morbidly obese.

      • Randall Stevens

        As are Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and most females.

        • SpiritofPearl

          Why do you hate women?

          • Randall Stevens

            Why do you hate men?

        • BCinBCS

          Bernie Sanders is obese?
          Maybe you meant Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

          • Randall Stevens

            They both are.

  • WUSRPH

    I don’t know about you but I was shocked today to see that Trump IS ALMOST BEGINING to understand what a FREE PRESS means…..Of course, he doesn’t like it…but that’s another matter…

    • WUSRPH

      What really must chap Trump is when the media does such things as point out his such things as how wrong is his little “misstatement” (made over and over again) about the US being the :”highest taxed nation in the world”…..None of us like taxes…even if they are the price we pay for civilization–but the FACTS are that we are not even close to average….But when Donald gets a thought, especially a wrong one, caught in his mind it sticks…..

  • WUSRPH

    Two interesting developments this week for the GOP Primary—potential challengers for both Lt. Gov. Patrick and our junior us senator Ted Cruz. Cruz’s appears to be from farther than the right than he is….so nothing to be gained there…but Patrick’s is a respected, responsible civic leader…..It is just too bad that he will probably get slaughtered. The problem is that he starts out with two major strikes against him: First, he believes in PUBLIC education and, second, he is not afraid to talk about how some of the folks financing the vouchers drive are looking at all those pubic tax dollars they could rake in with “private, for profit schools”…..especially since the bills Patrick keeps pushing make them meet no real standards….A kiss of death right there.