Making a case for civility

Jan. 5, 2011 12:00 AM
The Republic |

Remember the generation gap? Decades ago, the idea that age is an impenetrable barrier to mutual understanding became an easy — and often lazy — way to dismiss differences of opinion.

Those who saw “For Our Future: A Conversation Inspired by Christina-Taylor Green” on Channel 12 on Wednesday night saw something dramatically different.

People saw a generational meeting of the minds when retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor engaged a dozen young people in a discussion about civility.

Together they offered compelling ideas for bridging another gap that has become an easy — and often lazy — way for those who hold differing political views to dismiss each other.

You can call this one the civility gap. It’s the idea that political differences are an impenetrable barrier to cooperation.

Much of today’s incivility is built on the faulty premise that people with opposing political views have nothing worthwhile to say to each other. Rather than listen, they hurl insults. They suspect agendas. Opponents get slammed as less patriotic.

Some people say that’s just the way it is in politics. Period.

Others ask how we can change it.

Those questions are infused with the confidence that this nation’s political discourse can be better. Should be better. The quest for something better is inherent in ideas and ideals on which this country was founded. The push of civility has nothing to do with wanting to silence one side or the other. It’s about getting all sides to engage in a meaningful discussion as part of the deliberative process of making laws and setting policies in a free, democratic society.

Not an easy task when so many of today’s differences involve deeply held beliefs that seem to offer little room for compromise.

The Arizona Republic, 12 News and asked junior-high and high-school students from across the state to tell us how the next generation could cure the civility gap. The young people who spoke with Justice O’Connor and 12 News anchor Lin Sue Cooney were chosen from nearly 1,200 entries.

We ran the winning essays on these pages Sunday. If you’d like to read them again, take a look at

These young people sat across from Justice O’Connor — a position that has made some of the nation’s top lawyers quake — and answered her questions with remarkable poise and thoughtfulness. They talked about the importance of listening to those with whom they may disagree, and of respectfully offering reasons for a different opinion. They said it’s tough to do that. They are right.

Justice O’Connor, who was known for forging compromise in the Arizona Legislature in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is now honorary co-chair of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona. She talked about the “escalation in unpleasantness in public discourse.” She told the students, “You can disagree agreeably.”

This sentiment — like good manners — used to be far more valued in our popular and political culture. The strategy of winning by shouting down or putting down one’s opponent has been in style for so long that many people have forgotten that it is the quality of one’s ideas that matters — not the volume of one’s objections. The best solutions are often an amalgam of different views.

When schoolkids and a former Supreme Court justice can come together to eloquently make those points, the result is more than impressive. It is inspiring evidence that gaps were meant to be bridged, and that Arizona’s young people are ready for the task.

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