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MANY YEARS AGO, smitten by the idealistic rage common to angry young men, I was fulminating in my parents' den about the latest idiocy about to be perpetrated on the public by the "rednecks" in the Texas Legislature.

After a brief pause during which I was searching my vocabulary for other suitably scathing modifiers to describe the malefactors, my mother asked, "What is a redneck?"Before I could summon a response to my mother's question, Daddy snapped the paper shut, turned toward her and answered sharply and with some irritation, "A redneck is anybody who disagrees with you."

For my father, name-calling was a sign of argumentative impotence. In his 25 years as a lawyer and a judge, he had come to value the cultivation of a keen, reflective and reasoning mind as almost a mark of character.

His son had disappointed him. It wasn't the first time, or the last. Some of us are slow learners and still surrender to our emotional spasms.

Unfortunately, the coarseness of public discourse these days, riddled as it is with name-calling and sneering invective against "anybody who disagrees with you," suggests a hardness of heart in the body politic that is stifling the impulses of reason.

Language increasingly is being used as ammunition in a crude arsenal, like so many cudgels, barbed spears and poisoned arrows, to express disaffection, fear, cynicism, bitterness and animosity. As those harsh sentiments echo in the public mind, they spread like the thick goo of an oil spill, smothering the resilience of such vital human traits as reason, understanding, wisdom and courage in the face of confusion and adversity.

Words have the power to unite and to divide, to inspire hope and to foment antipathy, but the choice of which words to use begins in the heart.

No one who loves language and the lively contest of conflicting ideas would relish the demise of the creative sting of rejoinder and the disciplined passion of earnest argument, but something narrow and mean-spirited has infected too much of the public dialogue.

Such language is most evident in the more extreme programs of talk radio and the hateful screeds of militant separatists.

Some in the mainstream press have also yielded to mean-spirited urgings and abusive ad hominems. Last year, The Philadelphia Daily News referred in an editorial to Sen. Phil Gramm as "pond scum."

So-called liberals who fancy themselves as tolerant cannot escape culpability for engaging in similar vituperation themselves.

Civility now lies wounded and bleeding on the curb. Will no one lift her up, nurse her to health and dignity and restore her to our ranks? We need her desperately.