Participating in World Civility Day in Northwest Indiana was a true privilege. Since that occasion, I’ve considered how those in political leadership might better promote civility.

In his written “Rules of Civility,” our nation’s first president wrote, “Speak not injurious words, neither in jest nor earnest. Scoff at none though they give occasion.”

Everyone encounters others they believe deserve contempt or ridicule. Sometimes the feelings are mutual. At these times, our human nature tempts us to lash out and call each other names or act in an otherwise disagreeable manner. But what does anyone gain from that?

Instead, what if we really did treat each other the way we want to be treated?

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This approach is simple yet elusive.

Sadly, in reading history we see some who followed George Washington in the presidency failed to heed his words.

In the 1800 election, President John Adams faced a challenge from his vice president, Thomas Jefferson — the only time in history such a match-up has occurred. During that campaign, Jefferson wanted to diminish Adams’ reputation without appearing to be a mudslinger.

So Jefferson hired someone to do his dirty work.

Pocketing his fees, journalist James Callender wrote that Adams possessed a “hideous hermaphroditical character” with “neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Sexist stereotypes and all, this barrage represents one of the first negative attack ads in U.S. political history. Soon, the Adams camp hurled back similar insults against Jefferson.

Every generation, it seems, must fight the same temptations. We should admire those leaders who resist such impulses and show grace to their political foes.

Ronald Reagan often is described as a hard-line conservative Republican who held rigid beliefs and never backed down in debates. Nonetheless, he developed a cordial and productive relationship with political rival Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House.

Reagan and O’Neill worked together across party lines to get things done, and our nation prospered. Reagan used to say, “Half a loaf is better than none.”

You can hold onto your convictions while at the same time negotiating with people of different views. A degree of flexibility often is necessary to advance any positive agenda.

And here’s a radical thought: You might actually accomplish more of your goals if you treat others the way you want to be treated.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

A few years back, two Presbyterian pastors started the Institute for Civility in Government. They described civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

Civility, they said, involves:

  • Disagreeing without disrespect.
  • Seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences.
  • Listening past one’s preconceptions.
  • Teaching others to do the same.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Civility does not ... mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.”

Genuine civility is more than an act. It permeates even the ways we think of others in the secret spaces of our hearts and minds.

Whatever roles we occupy, we better serve our families, neighborhoods and communities when we practice civility. Thank you to The Times Media Co., Gary Chamber of Commerce and other World Civility Day sponsors for helping spread this message.

Curtis Hill is Indiana’s 43rd attorney general. The opinions are the writer's.

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