Civility Rare Enough In Public Debate It Deserves An Award

It has come to this: the partisanship in Washington has become so toxic that an award has been established to honor those who simply are respectful. There are plenty of honors from advocacy groups for those who fight for their respective sides fiercely, but this one focuses on an ability to listen and disagree with an understanding that answers may lie outside personal ideology.

It is a pleasure each Friday on the “PBS NewsHour” to listen to the 10-minute back-and-forth between left-of-center columnist Mark Shields and right-leaning David Brooks of the New York Times. Notice the labels liberal and conservative were not used to describe them.

Those monikers have become such vapid lightning rods on campaign trails that they should be done away with. Voters should challenge candidates to describe an opponent's shortcomings and not just let them attach a label that would frighten them.

Imagine an “analyst” on one of those cable news spilt screens saying of his or her counterweight that he or she is correct. Shields and Brooks often give each other credit for breaking down an issue in a way that shows a party or politician -- no matter the side of the aisle -- took a tack that was smart and helpful to the republic.

The Democrats won a fight on the payroll tax cut? Brooks might say they did, rather than dig in and try to spin it as some victory for the GOP.

Last week, Shields had some typically keen analysis in suggesting the U.S. is a country of pragmatists. His take was an ideologue believes what’s right works, while a pragmatist believes what works is right. To be sure, there is something to be said for holding true to one’s beliefs. But, it’s the pragmatic not dogmatic that could define the ethos of Shields and Brooks.

But on Monday, the ethos that mattered was one of courtesy.

The president of Allegheny College, James H. Mullen Jr., presented Shields and Brooks with an inaugural prize for “civility in public life."

The award will be bestowed by the college on two winners each year, “one from each side of the ideological spectrum, who show noteworthy civility while continuing to fight passionately for their beliefs.”

Allegheny noted that it had many nominees to sort through before settling on Shields and Brooks. Really? Some might say that with the school committed to finding winners each year, it would seem to have some serious work to do.

Many in Washington might want no part of the honor -- might consider it a badge of dishonor. But Shields and Brooks offered some impressive appreciation Monday.

Shields said the “NewsHour” has him believing that in discussions “the person on the other side probably loves their country as much as you love our country; that they care about their children's and grandchildren's future as much as you do; that they treasure the truth as much as you do; and that you don't demonize somebody on the other side."

Praising Allegheny, Brooks said many colleges “don't always teach character” and it’s good to be “involved with a school that has taken that seriously for so many centuries and still does today."

It is a sad commentary that civility in public debate has become a virtue. So much so that it is deserving of an honor -- and not the reverse.

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2 comments about "Civility Rare Enough In Public Debate It Deserves An Award".
  1. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct , February 21, 2012 at 7:37 p.m.
    My sense is that, in a sad & weird way, the politicians and news outlets give us the incivility we ask for - with votes and ratings. In the words of Walt Kelley, "we have met the enemy and he is us." So every time I hear "throw the bins out", I think "we have exactly the bums we ask for". The change that's needed is mostly the grass roots level - and in a lesser way among the politicians.
  2. T Y from Freelance Producer / DP , March 12, 2012 at 8:17 a.m.
    Yes to David and Doug. Sigh.