Two views of one lecture
The search for civility: Is it a lost art?
Editors note: When National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Jim Leach came to Houston to talk about civility — and the lack of it in today's society — CultureMap contributors Nancy Wozny and Leslie Loddeke each felt moved to write how it affected them. Here's Leslie's account.
“Civility in a Fractured Society,” the title of the lecture presented by the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities at Rice University, sounded like the same uplifting music to my ears that I’d heard the night before at a concert in a different hall at the same school.
On both occasions, I felt grateful for the ongoing opportunities that Rice presents to the surrounding community in the form of thought-provoking cultural and educational events that are free of charge. The Rice campus has become my own personal safe haven, a serene, intellectually focused and civilized refuge from an outside world where the spoken word does not always seem very well thought out.
In recent years, this country has been grappling with economic challenges that have been greeted by distressingly dissonant, raucous words from increasing numbers of Americans who seem to be taking on the role and belligerent, sensational style of certain loud-voiced cable-TV talk show hosts.
Recently, I’ve been especially troubled about this trend because of a shockingly hostile comment that was directed against the President in my presence at a social event by an acquaintance whom I’ve known (or thought I have known) for a long time. This person is very intelligent and successful, and holds a Ph.D. from a good school. Clearly and literally, degree of education does not translate into civilized speech. I don’t want to spell out the quote, but it was so extreme, I hope and trust that this person didn’t really mean it, and that he won’t say it again in public for his own good. It spoke ill of the person who said it, far more than of his political target.
Discussions that are innocuously billed as political, and supposedly focused on issues, are, more often than not, ad hominem attacks these days. And they’re not just attacks on people who hold public office and political candidates. They’re ambushes that come up out of nowhere, at the most inappropriate times and places, that are directed not only at a particular political figure, but at any person who is even suspected of holding a different political point of view.
Personally, I’ve always regarded parties — especially big parties — as occasions for pleasant, constructive conversation rather than opportunities for angrily making a case against a particular political position -- or worse, grossly insulting whoever happens to be the sitting President at the time. It just doesn’t seem to accomplish anything to approach an acquaintance at a large social event and try to start an argument over how stupid people are who support a particular political point of view. It feels more like counterproductive bullying than mutually enjoyable party talk.
That’s why I was so glad to see the title of NEH chair James Leach’s lecture at Rice. I have long thought that civility in this country could use a shot in the arm. Leach is the self-appointed doctor who is on a national pilgrimage to administer that exact medication in the form of local lectures on the topic.
Leach noted that in recent months, “a lot of particularly hard feelings” have been expressed. There is reason for hard feelings, and reason for thinking through how to deal with them, he said. However, unlike the sports ethic, which Leach ranked as “substantially higher” than the contemporary political ethic, suddenly, negativity has become the common way of doing things, and is being rewarded, he said.
Leach urged respect for conservatives, liberals, and “the oddball perspective” in conjunction with the “need to work together.” He decried name-calling – for example, like those who once called former Vice President Dick Cheney a fascist, and those who now are calling President Obama a fascist or communist, or both. Leach deplored words that create the notion that “someone else is your enemy” in a sort of cultural war in which some “Americans are declaring war on Americans.”
Leach advocated learning the lessons of history and philosophy, and a role for the humanities in “putting ourselves in others’ shoes,” in thinking through our lives and that of our country as a whole.
After the lecture, hosted by the university’s Humanities Research Center, Rice President David Leebron asked Leach how people coming into our political institutions can be incentivized to work across political divides. In considering Leebron’s question, Leach posed his own question: “When was the last time you heard someone arguing for the public good?” Basically, he said, the argument has been “we are right,” which Leach termed “not a very healthy thing.” For some, he observed, “compromise” is a pejorative word.
The bottom line of Leach’s quest on his road trip across America is to reframe political discussion in constructive, civil terms, working together toward the common good. As he continues to preach in an apolitical sermon with which I am in full agreement: “Words matter.”
Click here to read Nancy Wozny's reaction to Leach's speech.