The state of civic education seems to be a hot topic these days, but it’s time to give some thought to civility as well.
Civility — good manners, respect, courtesy and the like — is what lets us live together, for the most part in peace, even when we are at odds with one another over beliefs or actions.
Of course, a lot of civility is probably in the eye of the beholder, and some of us old-timers think there’s been slippage in our standards. When you thank a waiter for good service and he replies, “No problem,” it’s hard not to say, “I hope not. After all, it’s your job.” Or when the store clerk hopes you “have a good one,” a response of “a good one what?” only causes confusion. I know; I’ve tried it.
But those are minor irritants. More troublesome are the instances of incivility that have made headlines in recent times.
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Take, for example, Rep. Raul Labrador’s snippy outburst against his fellow congressman, Rep. Mike Simpson, which was explained away as an adult version of “he started it,” a blame game most of us haven’t heard since our grade school days.
Another example: Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (now on leave), had the bad manners to write a profane email and made a worse decision to hit the send button — and then the good manners to apologize promptly and profusely.
Another example, already much discussed in news articles and letters to the editor: the boycott by three state senators when the opening prayer to the Idaho Senate was offered by a Hindu. The incivility wasn’t really the boycott: No one is required to attend morning prayers, and legislators certainly have the right to leave the floor at almost any time.
Rather, the bad manners came with the bad-mouthing of Hinduism by Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, who said it was based on “false gods.”
Still, the boycott added a new dimension to the seemingly unending discussion of whether prayers should be allowed in public schools. More often than not, that discussion includes the comment that nonbelievers can just sit, quietly and respectfully, during the prayer, because a little prayer won’t hurt anyone. Apparently that cuts only one way.
(As an aside, Sen. Nuxoll brought Mother Teresa into the conversation, perhaps forgetting that Mother Teresa did most of her work in India and probably had occasion to listen to lots of Hindu prayers over the years.)
And what about the trespassing arrests when advocates of Add the Words refused to leave legislative chambers? Were they bad-mannered or were they following a long tradition of civil disobedience in support of a cause?
Whichever it was, it’s hard to blame them for their frustration. The Add the Words campaign is nearly a decade old, and nothing done so far — not hundreds of Post-it notes in support, not Statehouse rallies and marches, not a preponderance of testimony at a three-day hearing, not a heartfelt guest opinion piece by former Gov. Phil Batt, not letter-writing campaigns, not the experiences of the Idaho cities that have adopted their own local ordinances along these lines, not even the arrests — has been successful.
Here in Idaho and elsewhere, gay rights discussions often include the idea that religious exemptions should be added so that opponents of same-sex marriages or gay rights in general shouldn’t have to go against their deeply held beliefs. It’s tempting to think that a civil society can accommodate their views with a minimum of fuss.
But the religious exemption is a slippery slope. What if for reasons of faith a business owner doesn’t believe in divorce? In women holding leadership positions? In multiracial marriage? Are we better off when bakers or florists or anyone in any business can pick and choose customers — service to some, denial to others — based on religion? Probably not.
The old cliché is true: When everyone is thinking alike, no one is thinking very much at all. Here’s hoping any civic education class will include a big dose of how to disagree without making a mess of it. Democracy isn’t always easy, but civility glues us together as we work through these tough issues.
Lindy High, of Boise, is a retired Idaho state employee who worked for elected officials of both parties.