Last night, President Obama gave a speech to a joint session of Congress [1]. In that speech, he called for action on the health care bills currently languishing in Congress. However, his speech will be remembered not for anything that he said, but for something that Representative Joe Wilson said – “You lie!”.

We will leave the verity of Rep. Wilson’s outburst to the side for now [2].What is important is the matter of “Was his behavior appropriate?” That the out party rarely accords the President a warm welcome during his speeches is hardly new. The Democrats yawned during Governor Bush’s talks when he was in the Oval Office, and the Republicans did so for Governor Clinton during his term [3]. And the rudeness hardly stops there. Several GOP members held up competing health care bills during this most recent speech [4], while others perused their PDAs and tweeted away.

Nor is this the worst breach of etiquette in the hallowed halls of Congress. Take, for example, the beating of Senator Sumner by Representative Brooks, who took umbrage at some of the more colorful language used in an anti-slavery speech. And then there was the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel [5]. And other incidents abound, from the petty bickerings of Lincoln and Polk to the inanity of Senator Proxmire’s infamous Golden Fleece Awards [6].

However, what this outburst does show is that civil discourse is approaching a nadir, both as a country and as individuals.(At least that’s what I hope it shows; if the true perigee is much lower, we may burn up from the friction.) News has degenerated into a Winchellesque mix of name-calling and self-promotion, with insinuated slanders [7]. Considered opinion has been replaced by “talking points” [8]. Reality has been superseded by rhetoric [9]. And we, as individuals and as a country, are the poorer for it.

So please let me renew my call for civility in discourse. We can disagree (indeed, without disagreement, there is no progress). But we should use facts, not sophistry, to back up our claims. And we should be mature enough to agree that though some topics can be decided by facts (e.g., evolution, climate change), others cannot (e.g., morality).


[1] Interestingly, NBC, CBS, and ABC carried the speech live, while FOX went on with its regular programming. A deliberate slight? Or just “business as usual”? (Or perhaps both?) In any case, it adds an interesting nuance to the topic at hand.

[2] Though germane to the larger question of the bills at hand, it is largely irrelevant to this topic.

[3] It is likely that there are reports of Whigs being rude to General Washington when he was the Commander in Chief. I’m just to lazy to dig them out.

[4] Actually, I found that maneuver to be fairly clever. They were engaging in passive resistance and showing that they actually were trying to make progress on the matter (after twelve years of delaying tactics).

[5] Senso stricto, not actually held in the halls of Congress, but close enough for my point.

[6] The vast majority of which were based on a willful ignorance of the actual science being performed. (E.g., the use of toilet paper to examine fluid flow. Sounds silly, no? Until you read the research and discover that they were using this strips of tissue paper to map laminar flow around a submarine hull {this was in the days before sophisticated 3D modeling}. The final result of the research was a submarine hull that was faster and quieter – quite an important result from a national security perspective.) His conduct was outrageous enough hat a defamation case was brought against him and taken all the way to the US Supreme Court.

[7] Yes, yes; if they are only insinuated, they aren’t truly slander – at least in the USA.

[8] Witness the false controversy over Obama’s speech to school children. Very few of those (on either side) who had comments had actually read the thing in advance. And even fewer of them bothered to check to see if their guy had done the same thing!

[9] “Death panels”, anyone?

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5 thoughts on “Civility

  1. I was one of the people who complained about the speech to my kids.
    But my issue with it was resolved by the ability to preview the speech before my kids.. which I did. I also made it a point to discuss it with my kids at the end of the day on Tuesday. It is amazing when you allow children to have an opinion and for it to be expressed respectfully – what kind of adults they can become.
    I also watched the address last night and felt that he was on target on a few things but off on alot of others. But I do wish he was more open about "agreeing to disagree".. and with that disagreement.. we might actually move towards progress with civility.

  2. But I do wish he was more open about "agreeing to disagree".. and with that disagreement.. My only problems with "agreeing to disagree" are:1) What if you want to agree but I don't? Or vice versa? Why can't we continue to discuss things in a civil fashion? Or whoever wishes to drop the subject could simply say "I'm sorry, but I don't feel like discussing this anymore. Let's move on and return at a later date."2) Too many times, "agree to disagree" is used as a ploy by those who realize that they have lost a debate but don't want to concede the point. 3) Finally, there are many things that can be determined by facts, and agreeing to disagree is simply not appropriate. (E.g., evolution has been observed. CO2 levels are rising and CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Tax cuts don't "starve the beast".)With those caveats, I am more than willing to agree that there are times when we simply must agree to disagree. (E.g., the quality of Ben Afleck's acting. The superiority of Asti to champagne. How many politicians can dance on the head of a pin.)John

  3. The problem in the body politic now is that these things are often seen as weakness, while the ranting fat radio or tv pundit is seen as a paragon of strength. Fine. Condense my far-too-long blather into one pithy sentence. See if I care!John(Joking – I'm joking!)

  4. There you go wanting a fact-based discussion…Don't you know that screaming louder is a better way to make your point? Civility is difficult when your whole argument is based on name-calling and repeating lies. People who feel shame would keep quiet if the President is calling you out for using these tactics.

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