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The struggle against incivility

The study of the humanities conjures up reasoned discussion and analytical thought, with an eye toward the similarities all people share as part of the human condition. It's appropriate, then, that Jim Leach, chosen by President Barack Obama to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, has started a nationwide civility tour to try to soften the level of anger in public discourse and get people to actually listen to each other again.

But we hope it is not a fool's errand.

Leach was in Utah this past week to give speeches and meet with opinion makers. He was scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Westminster College. His message was simple. America is facing challenges today, from the economy to wars to immigration issues, that rival those in any period of history. The best way to solve these problems is through a reasoned approach and debate that doesn't include nasty labels and that involves a good deal of listening and, yes, compromise.

Civility does not require people to abandon passionate beliefs. But Leach believes it involves realizing that the person opposite you has a family and is just as human as you.

"In the best sense, good manners are part of civility, but civility goes way beyond that to ... putting yourself in someone else's shoes — engaging someone in an effort to understand their perspective," he told us. And in politics, he considers pride to be the deadliest sin, more so than greed in the business world, because greed "can be tempered somewhat by competition."

Well said, but it doesn't take a social scientist to see that much of the rhetoric in the United States today, on both the right and the left, involves little effort to see the world through the eyes of another. Often, the other side is cast as evil, socialist, anti-progress, uneducated or just plain stupid. Town hall meetings become shouting matches.

This isn't a condition unique to this time period. Americans have been divided into ideological camps over immigration, slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights, abortion and a host of other issues. At its worst, these differences degenerated into Civil War. But when Americans are at their best, they cooperate and rally to tame wildernesses, build cities, invent miraculous products, win wars and place men on the moon. They disagree with public policies yet show respect for elected office and the people entrusted with those offices by the democratic process.

However, this time period is unique in some important ways. The Internet has given rise to shrill rhetoric that often cloaks itself in anonymity. Celebrity pundits on radio and television play to emotions and stir anger. This has created a condition where many people have the luxury of reading and hearing news and opinions that express only one side of a debate, which makes it easier to dehumanize the other side. Common ground often is seen as a no-man's land.

As a former congressman, Leach is no newcomer to the public arena. He knows how hard it will be to change the wave of polarization washing over the nation. As long as there is respect for the representative government and the democratic process, Americans will find a way through. But the best solutions come through reason and mutual respect.

That makes the efforts of Leach and others vitally important, no matter how hopeless they may seem.