Editorial: Civil discourse

Lack of civility in our leaders bemoaned by those who practice it
Feb. 28, 2013 @ 11:36 PM

Is there anyone among us who doesn’t long for more civility in our elected leaders? Not that they always have to agree. Nobody agrees on everything. It’s just that we’d like our leaders in Nashville, Washington and even locally to learn how to disagree in a more professional, civil manner.

Three men who have had the term governor before their names met in Knoxville recently to discuss civility — the lack of it and the longing for it. Bill Haslam, Phil Bredesen and Don Sundquist met, appropriately, in the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. It is Baker who rightfully was held up as a model for civility.

Moderator Bill Haltom, a Memphis lawyer, said democracy works best when the nation’s leaders find the balance between free expression and civility. “There is not a better venue for this program than the Baker Center. This center is named in honor of the man for the last 50 years has personified that balance,” Haltom said.

The governors agreed that being civil to one another is about respect, listening, and learning to disagree without being disagreeable. “Civility is respecting the rights of others to have opinions,” Sundquist said. “Compromise is not failure of principles. It’s the only way to go.” Haslam added, “Conflict is different than the lack of civility.”

Bredesen suggested the the lack of civility is often the symptom of societal unrest about the economy, dissatisfaction with election officials, or a disagreement over major issue facing the nation. That’s true, but even in our worst times, even when people seem so divided over every issue, there are ways to express one’s self without over-the-top rhetoric and demeaning slurs.

It’s one thing to discuss it, especially among people who epitomized civility in their public actions. It’s quite another to see it put into practice. If one could bottle the Knoxville discussion and spread it around the Nashville and Washington capitol buildings, how nice it would be to see the result.