What civility attempts to do is to advance a certain mode of discourse, particularly when it comes to debates and disagreements with our fellow citizens. It assumes that in most cases – absent fairly extraordinary exceptions – basic good manners is what we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. Civility also helps inoculate us against one of the temptations in politics (and in life more broadly) — to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own. Civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. It is also something that is prized within the Christian faith. “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,” St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “so that you may know how to answer everyone.” And to the Galatians, Paul describes the fruits of the spirit as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Incivility is notably left off the list.My friend Mike Johnson recalls a recently-departed friend and aide to House GOP Leader Bob Michel:
He also had profound insight into human relationships and political behavior. One meeting I remember in the Capitol office with leaders from the Illinois and Peoria NAACP that serves as an example.
There was intense back and forth over an issue – I don’t remember the nature of it – and well into the exchange, Gavin, in a very rare interruption, said in very diplomatic terms that the meeting should end. He said something to the effect, of ‘regrettably gentlemen we can reach no conclusion here because underlying the discussion is a lack of trust in each others’ motivation. If one does not trust the motivation of the other, there can be no amicable conclusion to any conversation. Better to talk when both sides believe the other is doing what they believe to be right.’