Civility and Political Discourse after the Tucson Shooting

An article in Sunday’s New York Times states that “with the nation’s capital reeling from Saturday’s attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, in which an aide to the lawmaker and five constituents were killed [,] both parties on Sunday began a wrenching process of soul-searching about the tone of political discourse and wondered aloud if a lack of civility had somehow contributed to the bloodshed in Tucson.”

A few weeks ago on this site I quoted the poet W. H. Auden, who thought that most political issues were party issues. About a half-century ago, he wrote: “In a party issue, all parties are agreed as to the nature and justice of the social goal to be reached, but differ in their policies for reaching it. . . .  On a party issue it is essential that passions be kept at a low temperature. . . . Rival deputies should be able to dine in each other’s houses; fanatics have no place in party politics.” Auden added that what was “so terrifying and immeasurably depressing about most contemporary politics” was the failure to admit that most issues were party issues, “to be settled by appeal to facts and reason.”

In this essay on Auden, I also referred to my earlier essay on this site about President Obama’s University of Michigan Commencement Speech (May 1, 2010). In that speech the president did not advise us to temper our passion, only our incivility. Thus he said, “These arguments we’re having over government and health care and war and taxes—these are serious arguments. They should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires.” But he warned us about going too far.

We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes. . . .

. . . The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning –- since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”?

w. h. auden

W. H. Auden

It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. . . .

. . . Part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect. . . .

. . . If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.

But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.

In my piece on Auden, I also quoted a friend of Auden’s whose ideas President Obama has great respect for—theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Here are the quoted words:

All men betray moods and affectations, conceits and idiosyncrasies, which could become the source of great annoyance to us if we took them too seriously. It is better to laugh at them.  A sense of humor is indispensable to men of affairs who have the duty of organizing their fellowmen in common endeavors.  It reduces the frictions of life and makes the foibles of men tolerable.  There is, in the laughter with which we observe and greet the foibles of others, a nice mixture of mercy and judgment, of censure and forbearance.

Niebuhr also wrote,

Humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. The sense of humor is thus a by-product of self-transcendence. People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to “stand off” from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions. All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. We are rather insignificant little bundles of energy and vitality in a vast organization of life. But we pretend that we are the very center of this organization. This pretension is ludicrous; and its absurdity increases with our lack of awareness of it.

These calls for civility and humor would seem to go hand in hand. All sides need to display more humility, to realize that no one has all the answers. In Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, written some five hundred years ago, he spoke of the folly of us all, and Niebuhr reminded us of it once again in the middle of the twentieth century. Therefore we need to display more tolerance and understanding of others. The words of Philo of Alexandria are a good reminder: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

walter mossOn this site and others President Obama has often been criticized for being too ready to compromise or for not displaying enough political passion for just causes. No doubt, he has not always perfectly calibrated the right mix of passion and compromise. But there is also no doubt, at least in my mind, that he is correct in calling for more civility in politics. Auden and his friend Niebuhr spoke to this a half century ago, and the president more recently. Hopefully, something good can come from the tragedy in Tucson if we, on both the Left and Right, take more seriously the words that the president so eloquently expressed in his University of Michigan Commencement Speech.

Walter Moss

Published by the LA Progressive on January 10, 2011
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About Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: