Opinion: True civility needed amid tribal politics, dogmatic beliefs

In these polarized times, it’s time to take a hard look at civility. We need to forget the idea that civility is only about manners. If manners are all that matter, we’re actually in pretty good shape. Much political lunacy is clothed in politesse and parliamentary grace. And while our President behaves in ways that many of us consider uncivil, it’s also possible to do a lot of damage with soothing tones and refined manners.

But we’re not in good shape: our politics are tribal, our beliefs have become dogma, and compromise has become a dirty word. So, it’s time to demand more of civility.

The word civil comes from the Latin civilitas—pertaining to good and orderly citizenship. If it is to be meaningful, civility must be understood as the process of thinking, debate, and compromise embraced by citizens worthy of democracy.

The challenge is that people have vastly different views on all sorts of things. I’m regularly amazed by how differently my colleagues from Seattle, rural Alabama, and suburban Phoenix view the world. Heck, people in Shelton think differently than people in Westport. We come from different places with different cultures and different values. That’s a challenge, but also a real competitive strength.

As I tell students who visit the Congress, rollicking argument produces the best ideas. You don’t want to live in a country where there is no argument: North Korea, Iran, China. So, the challenge is to make debate constructive rather than destructive; elevating rather than demeaning. That’s where civility, properly understood, is essential.

The key to real civility is understanding that no party or person possesses the absolute truth on political questions. Science may tell us precisely when the sun will rise or how much energy is in a gallon of gas, but it will never settle the big political questions that are steeped in values, ideals, and faith. How big should government be? What should it do? Who should pay for it?

Out of this one big issue comes the practical ones. How much should we regulate firearms? Who should pay how much for our highways? How much healthcare, education, and retirement security should be guaranteed?

People all over the country have their answers to those questions, but no one has the absolutely correct answers. That’s one reason why the First Amendment to our Constitution prohibits the government from controlling what you think, say, or publish.

Civility, then, must be based on the notion that how we think is sacred, not what we think. And how we think must be rooted in the humility of knowing that truth is elusive. If that is our starting point, civility then demands that we embrace dialog and debate as the process by which we arrive at shared truth, or at least, compromise. It also demands that we be willing to listen to and consider alternative ideas and, sometimes, to change ours.

This is where it gets hard. Most people think that argument is an invitation to incivility. Instead of embracing the fight, people shy from it—mustn’t discuss religion or politics in polite company. And almost everyone, for reasons that go back to our hunting and gathering days, craves certainty and is suspicious of change.

Fortunately, there are guidelines that can make this easier, which can make us truly civil, and which will improve our democracy.

First, it is the idea that matters, not the person. Nothing quells debate faster than attacking the character, motive, or experience of the person making a point. Such attacks are not only uncivil, they poison the process of seeking truth and compromise. Shouting down speakers or challenging someone’s honesty and sincerity are signs of intellectual weakness, not strength.

Second, active, critical listening is essential. I’ve noticed that in most conversations, people don’t actively listen. Instead, they are busy formulating their own response. That’s not listening. It’s not really thinking. And it stops the essential act of really considering whether there is merit in what you are hearing.

Finally, as impossible as it sounds, civility demands something counterintuitive: that we celebrate being wrong; the kind of wrong that is born of learning and a willingness to change. We must adjust our ideas in the face of better ones. It’s enormously hard to change your mind, especially for politicians, who are often accused of flip-flopping. But growth, learning, and self-improvement can only happen when our old ideas yield to new and better ideas.

This is not impossible. The scientific method and our court system rely on these principles with success. Why not our politics? We seem to use battle metaphors to describe our politics—keeping the high ground, sticking to your guns. That’s fine. But let’s make our politics a battle not to the death, but for the truth.


Rep. Jim Himes (D) represents Connecticut’s fourth Congressional District, which includes Norwalk.


8 responses to “Opinion: True civility needed amid tribal politics, dogmatic beliefs”

  1. Susan Wallerstein

    Thoughtful and important remarks, Jim. One of the best things about moving to another part of the country is getting out of the often predictable local/regional cross-fire, making time to listen to new and different voices. Just the other day I had one of the most thoughtful, civil conversations in a doctor’s waiting room about income inequality, race, housing, transportation, parenting, etc. – learned so much from a wise mother and daughter.

  2. Bryan Meek

    We have one of the worst transportation corridors in the developed world with no plan, solution, or care for fixing, but at least we have the moral high ground. Thanks for all you’ve done (?) for us Congressman.

  3. Steve Mann

    Well-written Jim, and thanks. I can appreciate your need, in the very first paragraph, to rouse your constituency with a negative remark about the President, in your opinion piece about civility.

    Have you run this all by the Speaker? Seems like more than one person in Washington could use your advice. Have you heard Sen Blummethal lately? Wow, he seems like a prime candidate for lessons on “listening” and celebrating being wrong. I mean, the clear inability of many to accept the Mueller report findings is an excellent Petrie dish for a lesson in acceptance,

    Closer to home, and another great opportunity to preach civility is the State House in Hartford. My Republican friends tell me that they are not only not “listened” to but that they’re treated like downright garbage.

    But thanks for the lesson.

  4. Piberman

    Cong. Himes:
    I’m not aware of a single recognized finance or economic professional familiar with how CT is governed that doesn’t object to the Democrat “tax and spend” approach to solving CT’s decade long stagnant economy/employment levels. Especially in a State with among the nation’s highest income and property taxes used to finance the top salaries/benfits of our public Unions and stupendous size unfunded pension liabilities. There’s a reason why CT is widely viewed as the nation’s mismanaged State in the nation and the only one with a decade long stagnant economy/employment level.

    It’s not a matter of having “respect for other ideas”. It’s a matter of taking advantage of well developed professional competence in finance and economics. We see it here in Norwalk where Danbury provides the same services for 30% less per capita. And no one really cares.

    As in any other field of human endeavor “competence” in public affairs matters greatly too. And our future seems “more of the same”. Hence Bloomberg’s recent report of CT being “No. 1 in exodus of its residents”. Those leaving are voting with the “boots”. So we know our future.

  5. Adolph Neaderland

    Jim, I suggest that if every contentious issue is first tacked as a “common good” issue, it would be easier to find common ground.

    How to define “common good”? That which is to the benefit of the whole.

    In my mind, I consider our constitution a manifestation of the “common good”.

    Adolph Neaderland

  6. Peter Torrano

    Congressman Himes

    We’re you not quoted just the other day during an interview as saying that your lizard brain hopes that bad things happen to President Trump? In an effort at civility could you please expound on your hopes of harm by telling us what forms that harm would take.

    I find it curious that after sinking to a shameful low you now want to lead the masses to heights of new and great civility. You seem to be the model for the definition of conflicted thoughts and actions. Being a knight in shining armor requires that one leads by example. I think you may have fallen from your horse.

  7. Peter Torrano

    Were not we’re. I need to check before hitting send.

  8. Piberman

    Those familiar with the early contentious history of our future country’s leaders before and after the Revolution surely know “civility” was not uppermost in their minds. But “competence” and “respect” for others views no matter how diatremically opposite was the order of the day. Why it continues to be refreshing to read their discussions.

    Our problems are not “civility” but an astonishing lack of competence at all levels of government. Many ask how could CT with all its accomplished “brain power” become the nation’s most mismanaged State with a major exodus. Why do our Parties select wealthy candidates to seek the Governor’s post with their own funding and then once elected seem floundering on how to proceed.

    As Bra’er Rabbit said to the Fox “its a puzzle” why we’re so poorly governed. Maybe we just don’t care enough to do better. Or maybe we just can’t do better and “past is prologue” in CT.

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