We seem to have forgotten how to disagree without being disagreeable.
No punches were thrown at this weekend’s health care forums in metro Atlanta. But at U.S. Rep. David Scott’s event in Jonesboro, each side felt the need to bring its own posse to shout down the opposition.
Boos and hisses rose up from those against the several Democratic plans for health care reform in Congress. They were met with chants of “Yes, we can!” from proponents.
The event was held in a local high school, which only partially explains why the affair seemed more like a pair of competing pep rallies than an authentic discussion of the issue.
Immediately afterwards, in Centennial Park, firebrands stoked a Saturday afternoon crowd that had already made up its mind about changes to the nation’s health care system now contemplated in Washington.
They promised more confrontation. “We will not be quiet!” was one of many slogans tested for effect. Most of the signs carried by demonstrators spoke to the issue. One fellow was deliberately provocative. His read, “This time we didn’t bring our guns.”
At times, the angry words are enough to make you long for Richard Nixon and his Silent Majority.
At least one Republican thinks the harsh language and disruptions we’ve seen at town hall meetings across the country constitute a blunder — both moral and strategic — that could hurt the conservative cause in the long run.
Mark DeMoss is a conservative Southern Baptist whose Buckhead-based public relations firm serves evangelical organizations. He supported Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primary.
Earlier this year, he joined with Lanny Davis, a prominent Washington Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter, to form something called the Civility Project.
The rules, which can be found at civilityproject.org, are simple: “(1) I will be civil in public discourse and behavior; (2) I will be respectful of others, whether or not I agree with them; and (3) I will stand up and call out incivility whenever I see it.”
Three events pushed DeMoss toward a demand for better manners in politics. “I saw an awful lot of pretty ugly rhetoric directed at Mormons in general or Mitt Romney in particular, and then eventually at me — because I was helping a Mormon,” DeMoss said. “And a lot of it came from my own camp, from evangelicals.”
Then there was the November vote in California to ban gay marriage. “Because Mormons gave so much money in support of Proposition 8, you had these cases of gay activists vandalizing Mormon churches,” he said.
At the same time, DeMoss was put off by certain comments from conservatives following Barack Obama’s victory. “I didn’t vote for him, I don’t agree with him on much of anything, but I didn’t think it was right,” he said.
DeMoss knows that some conservatives will think him wimpish for urging politeness. But he assures those who disagree that civility and surrender are not the same.
As a rule, civility keeps you humble and clears your head. Incivility amounts to a display of contempt. And a lack of respect for one’s adversary is often the first step toward disaster. See “Custer, George Armstrong.”
DeMoss would add that rudeness in the health care debate, aside from making poor video, has struck many as weakness. “Is my case against it not strong enough on its merits, so that I’d have to stop it by disrupting meetings and causing chaos?” he posed. “That’s a sad admission.”
Then there is the question of — not karma, for DeMoss is a fervent Christian — but universal balance, let’s say. “It’s cliché to say what goes around comes around, but it sure does. I wouldn’t want these tactics used against me in a different administration, with a different goal in mind,” he said.
And while it shouldn’t bear mentioning, swastikas are beyond the pale — and everyone should say so, DeMoss said.
There are signs that other Republican leaders feel the same way. At that gathering in Centennial Park on Saturday, former House majority leader Dick Armey, the keynote speaker, shouted out to the crowd, “Did anybody tell you to be mean and rude?”
No, his audience shouted back.
In the last few days, many have made reference to the idyllic 1943 painting by Norman Rockwell, called “Freedom of Speech.” In it, a working man — who bears an ever-so-slight resemblance to a young Abraham Lincoln — nervously stands to make himself heard at a town hall meeting.
Nine faces appear in the painting. But only one figure is speaking. Everyone else has cocked an ear.
With freedom of speech comes the obligation to listen. Else we are left with nothing but the freedom to make noise.
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