Monday, May 22, 2006

The Uncivil Society

By Mitchell

Katherine Kersten, the Strib's conservative colunmist, talking with former Minnesota Lt. Governor Sandy Keith on the lack of civility in today's politics:

The rural-to-urban population shift -- accelerating from the 1950s through the 1980s -- was another factor in the growth of hard-edged partisanship, Keith says. "Small-town and rural people don't like divisive party labels, because they have to get along. They see each other at the barbershop and the grocery store."

Today, more people live in urban areas where they are, ironically, more isolated from those who think differently. "Politicians don't have work so hard at civility in urban areas," says Keith, "because they probably won't have to face their opponent at the local gathering places the next day."

I think Keith makes a very interesting point here, one that resounds not only in politics, but all over the blogosphere. We've become such an impersonal lot nowadays, arguing endlessly with nameless, faceless beings out there, that the rules of civility doen't seem to apply. It's pretty tough to have an interpersonal relationship with someone you've never met, never seen, whose name you don't even know. We all argue under different handles, like so many callers to talk-radio programs, until we've become characters of human beings. At that point, it's no wonder that the inherent dignity of the human begins to fade; if we don't treat ourselves that way, why should others?

There's another point imbedded in Keith's comments - the dangers of living our lives in isolation. It's the kind of thing that urbanologists from Jane Jacobs to Sarah Susanka have written about - the McMansions, the exurbs, the style of living that takes us farther and farther away from others. We build our homes bigger so we aren't running into each other. We build them farther apart so we have more privacy. We surround them with land so we aren't bothered by traffic. We become less interactive with our neighbors, even as our fascination with technology and the Internet allows us to be less interactive with those in our own households.

The sad part about it is that some who disagree with that preceding paragraph (and many will, especially other conservatives who may fear I'm starting to turn from blue to red) will use the tactics described in the paragraph above it to argue about it. There are lots of blogs out there that might have good content, good opinions and points of view; but I won't even waste my time reading them because of the lack of civility they show. They try to be clever rather than insightful, and they substitute snarkiness for a clear recitation of the facts within the context of their argument.

One-party dominance means that voters don't get to hear the other side of the story, while officeholders don't have to defend their views. Keith says a two-way street is vital. "When I was running for governor in 1966, I made a speech in Hibbing, and called for 'taxing the rich.' A constituent from Rochester took me aside, and showed me what he and people like him were actually paying. I changed my mind."

A key, for Keith, was getting to know the people on the other side of the political divide. He didn't find as many "devils" and "saints" as we tend to today.

"When you have the chance to get to know your political opponents," Keith says, "you realize that most of them are pretty good people."

This is one of the major reasons I got out of politics when I did. Politics has always been the bare-knuckled, rough-and-tumble, but at the end of the day you could brush yourselves off, give each other a pat on the back, and go out for a drink. Today, you come under intense suspicion by your constituency for even having friends on the other side of the aisle.

(As an aside: unfortunately, those who complain about friendships that cross party lines often have some good reason to fret. My experience has been that people can be co-oopted in their opinions through such relationships. Why? In part because we've become so inept at truly expressing firmly-held opinions in a civil yet forceful manner, it's often easier to compromise for fear of giving offense than it is to stick to your guns and risk escalation of the disagreement. And let's not forget having a sense of humor; it always helps.)

Anyway, it's probably no surprise that politics mirrors society; it always has. As Bishop Sheen used to say, a corrupt society produces corrupt leaders; corruption, like the bubbles in a glass of beer, always rises from the bottom.

But as a rule we've always tried to remain civil on this blog, both in terms of our writing and our management of the comboxes. I often think it's a good thing we don't have as many comments as some blogs; show me a post with a lot of comments and I'll show you one that often degenerates into name-calling and mudslinging.

There's nothing wrong with strongly-held opinions, nor is there anything wrong with a frank expression of them. But let's try to at least do it with a little style. Let's quit trying to always win points for presentation and instead try to win points with those with whom we might disagree. Don't worry; I'm not going to pull one of those, "Can't we all just get along?" deals. I'd settle for us all just getting to know each other first.

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