Civility in America ~ Excerpt

Civility book cover


Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC
President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame

“Given the turbulent times we are experiencing in every sector of society and recognizing the stakes that will determine the shape and future of the next generation, I can think of few civic issues that are as important as decency and civility in society.

During my 35 years as President of the University of Notre Dame, I always felt my duty was to create an environment that produced young members of society who were not only highly educated and well-prepared, but also respectful and open-minded. Through the challenges we confronted during my tenure, I sought to engender a sense of awareness and civility in my students that would allow them to be productive world citizens.

Civility was treasured and valued, although it was frequently tested during the tumultuous period of our nation’s history of the 1960s and the 1970s, when the Vietnam War pitted sons against fathers, citizens against politicians and students against established society.

These were contentious times, and very often Americans confronted one another philosophically and violently on issues such as civil rights, feminism, peace and justice.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed me as one of the first members of the newly formed U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during an era in modern history when Americans drank at different water fountains and sat separately on public buses based on the color of their skin. These were not times of civility. They were times of civic and spiritual turmoil.”

Building a Higher Platform

America moved beyond that divisive period, despite the protests, the political assassinations, and such convulsive events such as the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Now, we urgently need to build on what we have created and move to a still higher platform. We need to recognize that incivility has again crept into our society and raised its ugly head in a way that threatens the fabric of American life. Indeed, incivility seems to have gained social acceptance at a time when we should be at relative peace, working together to move into the 21st century.

In many ways, we remain a nation divided, most especially by political rhetoric, as President Obama pointed out in his remarks at a memorial service eulogizing the six people slain in Tucson by a madman during an assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Our political rhetoric was intense before the shootings, and that national tragedy only seemed to escalate it, the President noted.

He wisely said, “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

We are a nation in need of healing. During the last election, hundreds of million of dollars were spent on advertising designed to demonize political opponents. Incivility has become an accepted vice at all levels of society, and a recent poll concluded that 75 percent of Americans believe the nation has become demonstrably ruder and less civil.

Many of us are shouting at others, and even more of us are shouting just for the sake of shouting on the Internet, in newspaper columns, in political ads, on talk radio, at the stop light, at the dinner table, at the negotiating table, in the halls of high schools and in the halls of Congress.

While we are more technologically advanced than at any point in history, we are reverting back to primitive personal behavior that characterized mankind before we became “civilized.”

The result is that there is strife throughout America, screaming blogs, political attacks, vicious reader comments, and the inability to work across the legislative aisle without rancor and insult.

Restoring Respect

This incivility is most apparent in the media on talk radio and TV shows where callers are degraded and guests demeaned. There is no civil dialogue in any of this. Sadly, most of us have observed the same tendencies—possibly learned from watching the pundits and politicos do their thing—in our interpersonal relations.

Even in family life, incivility is apparent, and if TV sitcoms are a projection of our lives, or an inspiration for them, what we encounter is disrespect at all levels, from parent to child and child to parent. The problem at its most fundamental level is the result of a lack of respect for other people, a dehumanizing of the individual.

We somehow sense this is wrong. We were not meant to treat one another this way. We are meant to treat others as we wish to be treated. Civility is a foundation of society, of political discourse, of friendship, of social intercourse and of family life.

Consider that our society, which for the most part is more affluent than others, more educated than others and more technologically advanced than others, has somehow stumbled in its progress. Now it’s time for us to get up and stand erect as human beings were meant to, and behave with dignity and integrity.

This book, which collects a series of 2011 Carnegie Council lectures sponsored by The Dilenschneider Group on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, is an attempt to restore a measure of civility in our dealings. Some of the greatest minds in the media, business and government explore this crisis and offer their insights into possible solutions.

The voices of reason they raise and the thoughts they offer make an invaluable contribution to the restoration of civility in American society.”

* * * *


Robert L. Dilenschneider
Founder and Principal
The Dilenschneider Group, Inc.

“It is a great honor to be given the opportunity to end such a collection of wisdom as is this book with a closing commentary. Likewise is it an Aristotelian challenge to substantively add to the thinking already presented by its contributors.

It is, however, a distinct advantage to write the closing chapter, as from here an author has a unique perspective of common threads and themes present in the writings.

One clear theme is this: Civility is a responsibility that comes with the privilege of citizenship. Unfortunately, the passions and politics of recent years have caused the separation of the two, and this has contributed to our current crisis of civic incivility.

As Philip Howard has shared with us, the concept of civility goes back to the origins of communal life, and describes the “norms and manners required to live in a city or crowded place” as well as a “respect for the common good.”

Indeed, the idea is rooted in the very belief in the concept of “Citizen Romani”—that being a citizen of ancient Rome was a special and unique honor, giving its bearer the right to engage in public discourse and to influence public laws through the privilege of voting. Roman citizenship was not doled out to any and all who desired it. Families and individuals had to demonstrate an active history, or at least an active interest, in the stability and betterment of Roman society in order to participate as citizens.

This belief in the honor which Roman citizenship conferred to a person was so bedrock that it often stood in rigid defense of even the most disliked voices. It was St. Paul’s declaration to a Roman centurion about to scourge him—“Civis Romanus sum” (“I am a Roman citizen”)—that stayed the lash and required that he be taken to Rome for a trial by his fellow-citizen peers, as was the right of a citizen.

If citizenship bestowed upon St. Paul the right to be heard, even to spread sedition (with civility) until impeded by a trial by fellow Romans—how far the honor of citizenship has fallen that Americans cannot engage in civil debate over even trifling subjects of far less importance than life or death?


As noted in this book, mid-19th century British jurist Lord Moulton clearly found that “between can do and may do ought to exist the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste, and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible.” In other words, not all things that should be can be codified in law or enforced by legal means.

His words speak to another aspect of civility, which has not been honored enough in the public square of late: that is a due respect for the institutions and practices that have caused our society to be uniquely great.

My friend Henry Kaufman notes that financial markets and those who participate in them rely on “normal” behaviors—behaviors based on well established and proven norms of traditions and ethics. He is right that “breathtaking change erodes respect for old ways,” and has cited how it was the creation and rise of the precarious derivatives market that led his own beloved Salomon Brothers to eschew its foundation of stability and eventually stumble and fall.

Would this have happened if a proper respect (a proper civility) had been afforded the hard lessons learned by those who had brought Salomon Brothers to the heights from which it crashed? Probably not. The company’s management would have been guided by a respect for solid practices that had gone before; instead, such practices were viewed as “ancient history” with no relevance to the “unique challenges” of the day.

Henry reminds us—and all who will someday face an “unprecedented crisis” in their day—of Mark Twain’s wise counsel that “History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” A civility and respect toward that which has gone before can usually offer valuable guidance in most crisis situations, whether of divine or human origin.

All too often problems are of our own making, and in those cases we would do well to remember the sage words of CBS’s Charles Osgood, who reminds us there are only a few circumstances under which we cannot learn, and one of them is “If you do not listen, then you will learn nothing.”

That thought was offered for the benefit of budding journalists, but there are few engaged in civic debate for whom it does not hold good advice. Listening is a practice that has, unfortunately, fallen far too out of favor. As nature abhors a vacuum, so, too, do many people abhor the absence of their own voices. This can block all incoming communication in favor of the royal “I” and an exclusive focus on one’s own point of view.

At such times we would do well to remember the words of Carl Sandburg concerning what the poet called “proud words.”

“Look out how you use proud words,” Sandburg admonished. “When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back. They wear long, hard boots. They walk off proud. They can’t hear a thing.”

With so many people of good heart and mind focusing on our crisis of incivility in public life, however, it is my hope and belief (as it is several of the book’s contributors) that within the next decade we will begin to see a change for the positive.

It is the great strength of our nation that periods of raucous discourse, though painful to watch, lead to a pause in the battle and the emergence of a more civil discourse.

Let it begin with careful consideration of the wisdom in this book, which can lead our country to a reconnection between its citizenry and a time in which civility once again rules the day.”

Intrigued? Read the rest in print or ebook format by visiting Amazon today! 


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