Examples of Civility, Then and Now

By Duane Shank 01-20-2011

The calls for a more civil discourse in our public life spurred by the shooting in Tucson are falling on fertile ground. Two new initiatives were launched this week.

A group of concerned citizens in Tucson has posted a Tucsonans for Civility petition saying:

We are determined to come together now to build a better future for ourselves, our children and grandchildren.

We commit ourselves to listen to our neighbors, to appreciate and value our differences, to work together in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect to build a better community.

Yesterday, 230 mayors from around the country attended the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Among their business was adopting a "Civility Accord" that pledged commitment to several "principles for civility," including respecting the right of Americans to hold different opinions, avoiding rhetoric intended to humiliate or de-legitimize others, and speaking out against violence and prejudice in all their forms. The mayors ended:

We further pledge to exhibit and encourage the kinds of personal qualities that are emblematic of a civil society: gratitude, humility, openness, passion for service to others, propriety, kindness, caring, faith, sense of duty, and a commitment to doing what is right.

Today is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. In that famous speech, he said:

So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

While President Kennedy was referring to the Cold War, his admonition is also relevant to our current political debates. These new initiatives are good examples of how, as a society, we can be mindful of how we treat each other and work to create an environment that fosters the common good. May there be many more in the days and weeks to come.

Duane Shank is senior policy advisor at Sojourners.

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