Fair warning: what follows contains the word “politics.” It’s about the word, more than the thing. It’s not about gun control or abortion or immigration or Obamacare or any of the other issues that divide and distract us. Rather, it’s about something Aristotle called the “golden mean” by which he meant the middle ground between two extremes.
Words like “politics” and “civil” are familiar to all of us. They were also familiar to the ancient Athenians and Romans and have roots in Greek and Latin. Both these words represent ideals that we have incorporated into our concept of good government and that the Founding Fathers enshrined in the Constitution.
The word politics has the same root as the Greek word for state (polis). The word “polite” stems from the Latin politus (“refined, organized”). Being polite in ancient Greece, meant to be a citizen and to behave like one—to vote, exercise civil rights, show good manners, set a good example and participate in the public life of the community (polis). Not taking part in the life of the polis was an insult to one’s fellow citizens, a snub. In other words, it was impolite. It meant you were not behaving like a good citizen.
“Polite” and “civil” are synonyms. We used to study something called “civics” in school. “Civilization” has the same root as civility. Words have meaning(s). Either we mean what we say and behave accordingly or the words cease to be meaningful.
Some words are more than just words. Words like “democracy” and “liberty” and “justice” have meanings that have the power to transform lives. As Americans, we are the beneficiaries of a system invented by a small group of extraordinary individuals who had a way with words, who believed words were precious, that properly used words could be instruments of great good.
So much of what passes for normal in our public discourse today would have sounded extreme to them and, until recently, to most of us. Civility has all but disappeared from our televised political debates and the public statements of our political leaders .
Stephanie Clayton is a Kansas state legislator who introduced a bill last January making it unlawful to carry concealed weapons on college campuses in Kansas. She is a Republican legislator in a state where Republicans rule the roost, but the party is divided.
Clayton is a moderate Republican at a time when moderation is not the norm. She discovered just how far some citizens have drifted from the norm when Jonathan Holder, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, wrote in a Facebook post: “This bitch needs to swing from a tree for violating her oath.”
It’s easy to dismiss a guy like Holder as a lunatic, but he’s by no means alone either in his views or in the way he expresses them. One reader who agrees with Holder accused the “Lefty bigots” of being “hate-mongers” who “want to trash the US Constitution” and “have come completely unhinged.”
Of course, some people hold extreme views on a specific issue, be it abortion, immigration, gun control or whatever. That’s always been true. But these days we read and hear extreme views on all sides with alarming regularity on radio, television and especially social media, which studies show tends to divide us into opposing camps, push us to extremes and incite rather than inform.
In the U.S. Congress, moderation is treated as a sign of weakness and compromise is confused with surrender. On the internet, venomous speech often goes viral.
A Civil Air Patrol member who disagrees with an elected official about a law calls her an ugly name and suggests she should be hanged. He probably didn’t really mean it even though he wrote in a second Facebook message, “I stand by what I said and frankly don’t care who doesn’t like it.”
Jonathan Holder doesn’t represent most Republicans or most Kansans. (I know that because we live close to Rep. Clayton’s legislative district in Overland Park, Kansas, when we’re not in Colorado.) But incivility, extreme partisanship and reliance on inflammatory fake news are definitely on the rise (“trending”).
Unless things change, we are heading for a hard landing. It’s what happens in and to a society when partisanship and personal gain is elevated above all else, above policy or principle or civility.
When we say the pledge of allegiance and we mouth the words “one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” it’s sounding more and more like wishful thinking.
Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular. Visit Tom’s blog at http://open.salon.com/blog/dakotakid