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End of Civility Project

What Motivated Cho, Hasan and Loughner?

I previously blogged about civility and it seems to be a good time to add some thoughts in light of the murders in Tucson one week ago. A poll by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College and Zogby International found that the majority of Americans say they are “turned off” when politics become “rude and nasty,” and 95 percent say civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy. In June 2010 the Civility Project Civli asked the 585 elected officials to sign a civility pledge. The letters, personalized and sent directly to each of the offices, asked officials to commit to this pledge: “I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it.” To date only three lawmakers signed it so the Civility Project has ended.

One June 22, 2010, Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate and KRC Research released research that explores the state of civility in America. The survey asked 1,000 American adults to express their views about the tone and level of civility in government and traditional and social media. Here are some of the results: (1) two in three respondents believe civility is a major problem while three in four believe the problem has gotten worse; (2) three in four said the financial crisis and recession made the level of civility in America worse; (3) just one in four expect civility to improve while one in three think it will get worse; (4) not surprisingly, the government and politics were identified as having the least civil discourse and a majority characterized America’s high schools, talk radio, and Hollywood celebrities as uncivil.

So, just what is civility? To some extent it is in the eyes of the beholder. I like to think of it in four ways: (1) having good manners; (2) not being rude to others; (3) showing respect for others; and (4) tolerating differences whether they are religion-based, nationality, sexual orientation, or political viewpoints. As a society I think we fail to meet the ethical standards of fairness and caring in all four.

Since a lot has been written about the lack of political discourse and polarization of the debate in the aftermath of the horrific events in Tucson, I want to address this issue. In a recent CBS poll, 57% of Americans said the political tone had nothing to do with the shootings while 32% believed it did. When we look at violent rampages of the past few years there is one common thread. The perpetrators were mentally disturbed, there were signs of problems, and no one did anything about it. Seung Hui Cho who was responsible for the killings at Virginia Tech railed against Christianity and rich kids and had a major depressive disorder. Major Hasan who shot up Fort Hood was influenced by Islamic extremist terrorism. Who knows what went through the mind of Jared Lee Loughner.

The knee jerk reaction to the tragedy in Tucson has been, at least in part, to blame certain radio talk show hosts who incite their listeners to do crazy things. I doubt that is the case. We already know Loughner didn't listen to these programs and chances are neither did Cho. Instead, the blame should be placed on the decline of our culture as a civilized society as evidenced by these events and the bizarre videos on You Tube motivated by the desire for fifteen minutes of fame and a chance to star on a reality TV show. But, alas, we all watch these programs so let's blame ourselves for fueling the lack of civility.

Civil discourse was an important value to our founding fathers. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best:  “There can be no high civility without a deep morality.”