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Ed Feulner: The Danger of Incivility

The Heritage Foundation Published: January 3, 2014 4:00 AM

Think it's too late for a Christmas gift idea? Not for the one I have in mind. It's something you can give right now to anyone you like. Something that's sorely needed in policy circles and political debates: civility.

Alas, what we're seeing in the marketplace of ideas today is a disturbing growth of incivility. This breakdown isn't a failing of either the political left or right exclusively. It spreads from one end of the spectrum to the other.

This schoolyard mentality, and the name-calling that inevitably follows, are not the exclusive domain of those who attach intemperate comments to online articles. We hear it from highly educated people who write syndicated columns, publish books, and shout on radio and television talk shows.

Further down the food chain, lesser lights join in, poisoning the atmosphere still more. The Internet is a breeding ground for this type of behavior.

Someone will post a civil comment on some political topic. Almost immediately, someone else swings the verbal hammer of incivility, and from there the conversation degrades into a food fight, with invective and insult as the main course.

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This breakdown is an echo of the famous "broken windows" theory of crime, popularized years ago by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling: When a broken window in a building is left un-repaired, the rest are soon broken by vandals.

That's what we see online and on the airwaves. Once someone lowers the tone, others take it as an invitation to join in. Debates become shouting matches.

If you watch closely, you'll see something else happening. The people who make civil comments basically shut down. A few join in the food fight. But most just disappear. They leave because the atmosphere has turned hostile to anything approaching an actual dialogue.

This is the real danger of incivility. Our free, self-governing society requires an open exchange of ideas. That can't happen without a certain level of mutual respect for each other's opinions and viewpoints.

What we see today is an accelerating competition between the left and the right to see which side can inflict the most damage. Increasingly, those who take part in public debates appear to be exchanging ideas when, in fact, they are trading insults: idiot, liar, moron, traitor.

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When behavioral norms break down in a community, police can restore order. But when civility breaks down in the marketplace of ideas, the law is powerless to set things right.

And properly so. Our right to speak freely is guaranteed by those five glorious words in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ...."

And yet, the need for civility has never been greater. Our nation is divided as never before between the left and the right. We are at loggerheads on profoundly important political and social questions. Civilization itself is under barbaric attack from without.

Sadly, too many us are not rising to these challenges as a democratic people. Rather than helping to reverse this decline, the rising chorus of incivility is driving out citizens of honest intent and encouraging those who trade in jeering and mockery.

If we are to prevail as a free, self-governing people, we must first govern our tongues and our pens. Restoring civility to public discourse is not an option. It is a necessity.

Who will begin the restoration of civility? It falls to all of us to help revive this important virtue.

There's a world of difference between attacking a person's argument and attacking a person's character. We need to do more to respect that difference. To engage in rational debate and either hold our own or lose with grace.

We must defend our convictions with all the spirit we can. But we should do it with all the civility we can muster, no matter what our opponents do or say.

May that be our gift to one another, this year and every year.

Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation.

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anonymous Jan 7, 2014 1:03 PM

Well we can certainly see what Mr. Feulner is talking about as it is happening on this site already. The only way to stop the name calling and incivility is by using the truth. However, those that oppose the concept will not accept the truth and that results in the name calling and incivility.

TaggR Jan 6, 2014 9:57 AM

Hey little whiner, are you now claiming to be a progressive liberal?

All of these so called progressive liberal tactics you repeatedly keep referring to,  are the exact same tactics you repeatedly use.  Especially that repeat, repeat, repeat the lies part.  Can't you stop whining for just one day?

little_r_republican Jan 5, 2014 11:18 AM

Another progressive liberal tactic....acuse others of doing what you do and follow with name calling and insults.

user_23127 Jan 3, 2014 11:49 AM

Although I dont agree with many of the position statements of the Heritage Foundation, Mr. Feulner could not be more accurate with his comments.  Political discourse is a good thing.  Name calling and playing the blame game is not. 

stanback Jan 3, 2014 11:17 AM

Well said, Mr. Feulner. There has never been a higher level of disrespect for the office of President of the United States as there has been for the last 5-6 years. Individuals that pass themselves off as news journalists or talk show hosts resort to name calling when all of the other tactics they normally use have failed. For example, declaring that the President's plan to fix the economy will send us into the next Depression, the President's intent is to take all guns away from all Americans, he was not born here, he is a Muslim who will allow terrorism to flourish in our country, etc. etc. etc. All scare tactics that they knew to be lies or, at a minimum, had no facts to back up their statements but kept pounding away at it, day after day, month after month. When time passed shows that these statements were not true, it was on to the next one. There will always be fundamental differences between the two political parties which is what makes democracy work. When one party decides that they will not support ANY idea that comes from the other no matter how good that may be for the people they represent, you end up with name calling and a non-productive government.

TaggR Jan 3, 2014 10:32 AM

little whiner you win the award by miles for hypocrisy and deceit on this website. Your statement below is sooo hypocritcal. Your ignorance is abounded here on a daily basis. You want to talk about repeat, repeat, repeat. That's you little whiner. Can't you stop whining for just one day?

little_r_republican Jan 3, 2014 7:56 AM

obama and then his fellow democrats perfected the insults, lies, demagoguery as no other political party ever has or ever will. The entire tactic is to repeat, repeat, repeat the lies until some people begin to believe it because they keep hearing it. It has won elections for the pasat 5 years for the democrats...they will continue. Just look at the liberal comments posted here...never an opinion on an issue with logic, just insults on those who post an opinion contrary to the progressive mantra.