Charter for Compassion

Monday, August 10, 2009

Towards the Etiquette of Democracy and Dialogue

As I have mentioned on facebook, watching the town hall meetings on health care, I have been alarmed that there is a growing problem with civility. This made me think about a book I have held in high regard on this topic. It was published in 1998. Here is what the inner jacket cover said, back then:
"Something terrible has happened to civility. We can no longer hold political discussions without screaming at each other, so our democracy is dying (my emphasis). We can no longer look at strangers without suspicion and even hostility, so our social life is dying. We can no longer hold public conversation about morality without trading vicious accusations, so our moral life is dying. All the skills of living a common life-what Alexis de Tocqueville called "the etiquette of democracy" -are collapsing around us, and nobody seems to know how to shore them up again."
The above lets us know, this is not just the current generations problem, but it does point to the urgency of solution. The book is Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy by Stephen L. Carter. The book is still available. Some of you know that Carter was criticized as a conservative back then... I only wish the conservatives of today could also follow these guidelines. I found it interesting that the book took its inspiration from Abolitionist sermons of the nineteenth century. So, at the risk of sounding old fashioned, and in the interest of democracy, here is some of what Mr. Carter, Professor of Law at Yale recommends:
• Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not.
• Civility requires that we sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know.
• Civility has two parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk.
• Civility creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.
• We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.
• Civility requires that we listen to others with the knowledge of the possibility that they are right, and we are wrong.
• Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace. Thus, basic principles of civility -generosity and trust-should apply fully in the market and in politics as in every other human activity.
• Civility allows criticism of others, and sometimes even requires it, but the criticism should always be civil.
• Civility values diversity, disagreement, and the possibility of resistance, and therefore the state must not use education to try to standardize our children.
• Religions do their greatest service to civility when they preach not only love of neighbor but resistance to wrong.
Carter's book explains each of these bullet points and more, one per chapter. It is an interesting and provocative book, I recommend it.

It is a high order, in some countries people are jailed for it, but it is important for democracy. Only when we model it can others see the value of it. I am wishing to start a dialogue. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. A few observations by Charles M. Blow on twitter:
    CharlesMBlow Watched 3 town halls today. Contrast between loud, ill-informed questions and smart/patient answers is powerful. The tide may be turning.
    CharlesMBlow Observation: town hall crowds don't look like America. Just saying...
    CharlesMBlow America is diverse. And, the future of America is even more diverse.