Edmund Burke, the great 18th century British philosopher, wrote that "there ought to be a system of manners which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely."
Although Burke was thinking about his own country at that time, his words have been recited by lovers of democracy for the past two centuries and celebrated as a standard that all free societies should seek in their public discourse.
The idea is a pretty simple three-step progression: (1) For freedom to have any meaning in a democratic society, individuals need to be able to express themselves and to communicate their unique perspectives on the issues of importance to them in the public square; however, (2) Our own views are reflections of our unique life experiences, moral values and world views, so it's inevitable that we will have deep and robust disagreements between individuals on these issues of the day; therefore, (3) We need to be tolerant of opposing views and respectfully communicate our disagreements if we are going to achieve any sort of constructive public dialogue. In essence, freedom of expression implodes on itself if we don't allow others their own freedom of expression, even when we oppose their views.
This week, I've been sifting through various incidents that have taken place in our country over the past year and running them through Burke's filter. I've heard Pres. Obama called a liar right in the middle of his State of the Union address on the floor of Congress, the even-tempered Sen. Arlen Specter literally shouted at by constitutents while standing face-to-face during a routine town hall meeting, and the staunchly pro-life Rep. Bart Stupak called a baby killer by another Congressman who didn't like his vote on the health care bill. This is not a partisan observation -- I've seen similar treatment of Americans on the other end of the political spectrum, including Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter and this week's disruption of a speaking appearance by Karl Rove in Los Angeles, which ended in chaos when anti-war protesters refused to let him speak for more than a few moments without shouting him down.
Are these incidents becoming more frequent and, if so, are they ominous signs of the decline of civility in our public discourse? Or are we just more aware of them now -- thanks to the ubiquity of video cameras and the realtime delivery channel of the Internet -- and therefore under the impression this is something new and different?
Reasonable people can disagree about this question, but I've concluded that it's a little of both. On the one hand, I do believe the increasing polarization of our elected officials has had a significant and detrimental impact on the quality of our public discourse; there is very little "middle" remaining in the Congress, which means the volume often gets cranked up much higher on issues of contention as the hardened bases of each party set up camp and lob bombs at each other. It's inevitable that this vitriol will make its way to the book signings and town hall meetings that take place on the real streets of America. On the other hand, it does seem to me that the notion of intense disagreement occasionally spilling out in the form of loud or boorish behavior is as old as the republic -- we are, after all, the nation in which a sitting vice president killed a cabinet member in a duel, not to mention that rather noisy argument we once had that became known as the Civil War. Perhaps the immediacy of 21st century communications has indeed created an exaggerated impression that we're all a bunch of lunatics screaming at each other.
In the end, however, I side with Burke and Jefferson and other thinkers of their era who derived the idea of civilized public discourse from fundamental principles of ancient Greek culture. The original designers of what we would later call "liberal" democracy believed in the core ideas of diplomacy, civility, compromise and intellectual tolerance. I think they got this right. In order for a free society to thrive, there must be robust public debate; in order for robust public debate to be possible, there must be a level of respect for opposing views. That's a fancy way of saying that we all need to show good manners toward each other.
Shout downs, name calling and disruptive behavior may get you on You Tube, but it's no way to show love for your country. I realize this call for mutual respect in the public square may seem a little quaint in a world where these kinds of ideals are all but dead, but this is America -- lovely is how we roll.