A Plea For Civility

It is with dread that I regard next year's elections. The horrific explosion in Oklahoma City and the Amtrak derailment have sharpened the fear wedged like an arrowhead in my consciousness. We are a people of frayed nerves and trigger tempers. In the aftermath of the O.J. trial, we speak increasingly of separation and difference. Dangerous polarities are born of a national obsession with victimization.I can see the gulf that has emerged between reasoned, passionate discourse and the bombast or knee-jerk reactions that pass for national debate. In my classes, students learn to resist the emotional plea, to abstain from absolutism, to reason with rigorous fairness and honesty. They often do not agree, but listen anyway to the counter-idea, understanding that to merely listen is not the same as to agree. My experience in the classroom has led me to believe that it is not unreasonable to expect more civilized campaigns, ones that will not exploit the rifts in American society. We've heard much lately of the Contract with America. I wish to propose another sort of contract, a promissory note (a concept I borrow from MLK Jr.) to conduct campaigns of real depth.Promise No. 1: I will not resort to name-calling. The issue at hand invariably gets lost as the mud flies. Stick to the argument, even if your opponent doesn't.Promise No. 2: I will not cloak myself in absolute virtue. Enough smugness. Republicans do not have a lock on patriotism; Democrats are not the only ones who care.Promise No. 3: I will not intentionally misrepresent my opponent's arguments. Any politician who creates a straw man is a liar. Understand? A liar. Gratify us by not being one.Promise No. 4: I will answer the question I have been asked, not the question I wish I had been asked. Stand still and say what you really think as you earnestly grapple with the question. When you don't know, the appropriate answer is ... well, you get it.Promise No. 5: I will not engage in faulty emotional appeals. Get elected because your ideas are worthy, not because you know how to push buttons and blow smoke.Promise No. 6: I will not generalize nor demonize. It's easy to paint with a broad brush, to create self-serving propaganda by attributing attitudes and positions to entire groups whether they be lesbians, Latinos or white males. Take the time to see the complexities involved, to understand that within any group is a stunning diversity of views.Promise No. 7: I will accept the consequences of my exhortations and criticisms. Yes, people are free moral agents, yet we do not exist in a vacuum. Weigh your words; seek reconciliation, moderation and balance, not outrage, alienation and denigration. Of course, we citizens are the primary beneficiaries of such a note, but the general reputations of politicians will improve as well as campaigners who engage the array of ideas and emotions that is our National Identity temper ambition with intelligence and honor.

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