If ever there was a doubt about the importance of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s “Disagree Better” campaign as head of the National Governors Association, Tuesday should have dispelled it for good. 

Exhibit A was the near fistfight between Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, and union president Sean M. O’Brien, who was testifying at a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The two had been exchanging insults going back at least to March. 

After verbally agreeing to “finish it here,” in Mullin’s words, the pair appeared ready to fight. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who chairs the committee, intervened and diffused the tensions, reminding Mullin, “You know, you’re a United States senator.”

Exhibit B was the near altercation between former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican who had voted to oust McCarthy from the speakership. Witnesses said Burchett, convinced that McCarthy had deliberately elbowed him in the back as he walked by, pursued McCarthy, yelling, “You got any guts?” and “You need security, Kevin!”

McCarthy later denied deliberately elbowing him. 

With Congress on verge of fistfights, Gov. Cox champions civil discourse

Exhibit C comes from the world of sports, where Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors put former Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert in a chokehold after Gobert, who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves, had tried to pull a Warriors player away from his teammate, prompting the reaction from Green.

Altercations happen on occasion in the NBA, as in other sports. Competition is fierce and emotions run high. But Green’s actions clearly went beyond that. At the time this was written, the NBA had yet to decide on any punishment for Green, other than his suspension from that game.

Taken together, these acts may not signal the end of civilization, but it’s not far-fetched to label them a natural outgrowth of a society in which verbal and written taunts are all too common on social media and elsewhere. 

Especially in the Senate, often touted as the world’s greatest deliberative body, debate should never devolve into violence or caustic taunts. Arguments should not be decided, nor even influenced, by threats in a nation of laws and procedures. An invitation to “finish it here” is not an argument.

The senator and the union leader should both be ashamed.

So should any American who engages in such behavior, whether it’s an altercation on a commercial flight or a simple dispute between neighbors. The Council on Criminal Justice reports that the rate of aggravated assaults in the nation’s major cities remains higher than it was before the pandemic. 

Ironically, while certain members of the House and Senate were acting like schoolchildren, Cox was in Colorado, talking to a bipartisan group about disagreeing better, as the Deseret News reported. He connected what was happening in Washington with the lack of ability to listen critically and use persuasive reasoning throughout the nation.

“This is not just another civility initiative,” Cox said of his “Disagree Better” campaign. “This is the only way we get it back together and save our country.”

Inside Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s VERY big week

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has called on Latter-day Saints and others to become peacemakers in their personal and public lives. Pope Francis and other religious leaders of good will have likewise repeatedly called for greater civility. These messages merit amplification.

The governor’s choice of emphasis for his year of NGA leadership might have caught some people off guard at a time when topics such as immigration, inflation, the national debt and health care are causing so much concern. But, as he’s said many times, none of those issues can be resolved until the nation learns how to handle its differences with mutual respect, dignity and meaningful compromise.

Given all that happened on Tuesday, it may be time for the nation — from average people on the streets to the halls of government — to take a refresher course on the fundamentals of democracy and civil society. That starts, simply, with good behavior, and perhaps there is no better place than around the Thanksgiving table next week.

Cox chose the perfect campaign to emphasize during a time of declining civility. Sanders, as well, deserves praise for reminding Sen. Mullin of the dignity of his elected office. The rest of us need to act as if who we are matters, as well, before civil society truly does unravel.