Long ago, on the eve of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made a heartfelt plea to the American people: Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell … when again touched … by the better angels of our nature.
In a nation as divided as ours, how can we answer Lincoln’s call? How can we bridle our political passions and heed the better angels of our nature?
We can start with by practicing civility.
Without civility, there is no civilization. It is the indispensable public virtue — the protective wall between order and chaos. But that wall has weakened in recent times.
Consider the steady disintegration of our political discourse. We live in a media environment that favors anger over reason and feeling over fact. The loudest voices, not the wisest ones, now dictate the terms of public debate. For evidence, simply turn on the TV — but be sure to turn down the volume.
The media deserves some culpability in creating this environment by adopting outrage as a business model. But we are complicit when we join the fracas, especially when we use language to unnecessarily belittle the other side. Whether it’s online or in person, all of us should be more responsible with our speech. Our better angels call on us to persuade through gentle reason. They call on us to inspire and unite rather than to provoke and incite. In short, they call on us to embrace civility.
I issued this call for civility during my farewell address on the Senate floor last December. There, I bemoaned the gradual loss of comity and respect among colleagues that I observed over my 42 years of public service. In the last decade alone, the culture of the Senate has shifted fundamentally — and not for the better. I know because I watched this transformation take place before my very eyes.
There used to be a level of congeniality and kinship among senators that was hard to find anywhere else. In my early years in office, it wasn’t unusual for Republicans and Democrats to count each other among their very best friends. In fact, it was encouraged. There was a general understanding back then that you could spar on the Senate floor and then break bread together later that evening. Leaders fostered cross-party friendships in hopes of kindling compromise on difficult-to-pass legislation — and it worked almost every time.