The Civility Problem

There have been more and more appeals for civility in politics and public discourse, in the media, and almost everywhere… and from what I can see, matters are not getting any better, and in some areas they’re definitely getting worse.

One of the reasons for this is that too many groups and too many people are attempting to legislate personal beliefs into law… and on the legislative front, the battle lines have been drawn. Little or no quarter is being given, and if it continues, we’ll all be defeated.

The United States is a country founded on certain principles, but most people fail to understand that those principles – such as freedom, equality, and equal opportunity – are ideals, and that, in the real world, implementing those ideals is far harder than talking about them, particularly when different groups of people have different ideas about what those ideals mean and how the laws to uphold and protect those freedoms should be written and enforced.

Because those differences exist, for a society to function, compromise is essential, and secular laws are, in effect, a compromise, laying out the ground rules on which the majority of groups agree… and leaving other matters to personal or group determination.

Today, one of the problems is that too many groups believe that their interpretation of the principles of the Founding Fathers should be enacted into law and that anyone who has a different interpretation is not only wrong, but effectively a mortal enemy and that such “enemies” should be forced to comply with the interpretation of whatever group has the power to enact such narrow interpretations.

What is overlooked is that the Founding Fathers did not want a bureaucratic or religious state where only one set of religious beliefs was enshrined in iron-clad laws. They attempted to create a system where basic rights were protected, but one where beliefs were not imposed by law.

Needless to say, the initial attempts were flawed, in allowing slavery and in denying the franchise to slaves and women. These failures alone should suggest the error of claims of the “originalists” that the Constitution was perfect, a lack of perfection that the Founding Fathers themselves realized by allowing Congress the power to make laws and to amend the Constitution – with the approval of the states.

The structure established by the Founders was a statement in itself that changes would be necessary and that compromise would also be necessary. Unhappily, the message about compromise seems to have been forgotten as each ideological group has decided that its principles, and only its principles, should be enacted into law.

Principles should be how each of us guides his or her own life. Laws should be the framework under which we undertake that guidance, not tools to force beliefs onto others – with the sole exception that the law should protect individuals from harm caused by others.

Unfortunately, that necessary exception has created enormous conflict because there are areas, such as abortion, gender, and civil rights, where absolute individual rights conflict, and rather than compromise, one or both sides become intransigent and demand that their view become the law of the land, rather than hewing to the Founding Fathers’ attempts to place the rights of the individual above the state, except where such individual rights harm others.

And even that principle requires compromises… and civility.

1 thought on “The Civility Problem”

  1. Tom says:

    It appears that you have at least one other writer who agrees with you …
    To me it seems that the loss of civility or diplomacy between people is related to our increasing physical abuse of each other and our acceptance of torture as a way to get answers. Maybe the writers and directors and editors are to blame for using this abusiveness as advertising without considering the social consequences. If this is not a result of a degeneration of society via our loss of self-control then what is the cause of the loss of civility? Surely not something more that we can blame the writers of The Constitution for!

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