Civility Is the Foundation of Community

Guest Correspondence

A couple of weeks ago, historian David McCullough told a funny story to a crowd of nearly 700 community members in Sarasota. His tale got to the heart of a divide in our country that feels as frustrating to accept as it seems impossible to repair. We all would do well to heed his wise advice.

Mr. McCullough was discussing why disagreeing with another person’s politics doesn’t mean we have to despise the person too. He shared a story of walking to the White House with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was about to meet with then-President George W. Bush. McCullough recalled the senator railing against the President’s policies, grumbling things like, “The President is doing this!” and “I can’t believe the President wants to do that!” Growing concerned about the imminent confrontation he foresaw, McCullough asked Kennedy, “Senator, you do realize you’re about to meet with the President?” To which Kennedy replied, “Of course! I like the President; I think he’s a great guy!”

In his disarmingly folksy way, David McCullough did what he does so well: He shared a profound and universal lesson through an iconic story rooted in his sensible witness to history. If the Liberal Lion and Bush-43 could treat each other civilly—and actually like one another as people—perhaps we all might remember that finding common ground actually serves the common good.

The dangers of incivility are numerous. It turns off political participation. It results in needless government gridlock. And it sows the seeds of intolerance. These all are threats to our representative democracy.

How do we reverse this trend?

In a recent AP story, writer Matt Sedensky unveiled several small experiments to restore civility in our popular culture. For example, Allegheny College created a “Prize for Civility in Public Life” and awarded last year’s to Senator John McCain and Vice President Joe Biden. As the two received their award, they faced each other in a collegial embrace instead of a partisan glare.

The University of Arizona is home to the National Institute for Civil Discourse. According to Sedensky, interest in its programs has surged. It is no coincidence that the home of this institute is where Representative Gabby Giffords was shot and six others died at a local rally.

At Gulf Coast, we recently previewed our “Civility Squad”—a team of animated characters created by students at Ringling College of Art and Design. The Civility Squad aims to “save our community one good deed at a time” by promoting 10 “keys to civility,” such as respecting others (“You are you and I am me. We can agree to disagree”) or speaking kindly (“Say what you mean, mean what you say, just don’t say it in a mean way”).

Which brings me back to another salient point made by David McCullough during his recent visit. His advice on how to constructively communicate with those whose beliefs might differ from yours: appreciate that “they want to be as valuable and contribute as much as you do” to our community, and then treat them as such. That is the dignity everyone deserves, recommended by a dignitary who has studied some of our most renowned and effective statesmen.

Mark Pritchett is president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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