A time for courtesy

Bob Garton

By Bob Garton

The first five letters in civilization give meaning and substance to the word. Those letters are critical in defining civilization. Being civil or practicing civility is critically important because it is the foundation on which civilization is built. Today, civility seems to be a lost art, particularly among elected officials.

In her book What’s A Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing In The ICLU?, Sheila Suess Kennedy, former director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, summarized succinctly in a single sentence the significance of civility: “We cannot find common ground without civility and we cannot solve our problems without finding common ground.”

Today, the law-making process at every level – local, state, national – is clouded by an atmosphere of pervasive polarization and constant conflict between the two political parties. What is needed is a climate of civility and mutual respect. A willingness to compromise is the soil of common ground in politics. As the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, proclaimed, “Law is order and good law must necessarily mean good order.” Compromise and civility are essential for both good law and good order.

Lack of civility in our society is not a recent phenomenon. Over 30 years ago, Dr. William Ouchi wrote Theory Z, a fascinating management book explaining how American business could meet the Japanese challenge. According to Ouchi, the secret was not technology, but a special way of managing people. He claimed we Americans had lost our sense of trust, our appreciation of friendship, and our concern for one another as individuals.

In the Indiana State Senate, whenever a current or former senator dies, an honorary resolution is introduced, recognizing his or her public service. Routinely, senators from both sides of the aisle speak as quiet descends throughout the chamber. Some of the best speeches in the senate are heard at that time. They find common ground.

The legislature has rules governing the legislative process. One of those rules requires civility, specifically; no senator shall impugn the motives of any other senator. If any senator, speaking or otherwise transgresses the rules, any senator may call the senator to order and indicate the words to which there is an objection.

The senator called to order shall immediately be seated, but he or she may appeal the call to order. If the appeal is seconded by another, an immediate vote, without debate, will be taken on the appeal. If denied or no appeal made, the offending senator is seated and liable to any censure or punishment the senate may deem proper. However, rules specifying a challenge of a senator’s integrity must be made immediately before any other business is considered.

Unfortunately, during the recent 114th session (a session being a two-year period) during debate on a bill, a senator challenged the integrity of the bill’s author. Both senators were Republicans. Apparently, other Republican senators were stunned and did not offer a challenge while presumably Democratic senators were enjoying the infighting.

A challenge could not be offered later. An opportunity to enforce both the rules and civility was lost. The Senate missed a regrettable opportunity to enforce its rules. I doubt, though, if that loss will be repeated in the future.

During the first 14 years of the 21st century, political campaigns have become nasty and negative. Political consultants advise it’s the only way to win and, to candidates, winning is what campaigns are all about. The result is winners carry this attitude into office with them and the loss of civility and mutual respect result in government gridlock.

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Life is short, but there’s always time for courtesy.” Courtesy and civility are the fertile soil of common ground. It should be a goal not a forgotten memory of the way things should be.

There is a pressing demand today for a thoughtful public discourse, of service over selfishness, and ethical behavior over meandering morality. We don’t need politics of the left but politics of life. We don’t need politics of the right, but politics of respect.

In short, America needs a new sense of purpose, pride, and progress. Above all, we need a renewed sense of civility.

Bob Garton served as president pro tempore of the Indiana Senate for 26 years, the longest legislative leadership tenure in the state’s history.


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