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The President's speech last night.

The transcript of the President's speech at the memorial in Tucson, Arizona, last night is published in many places, I'm sure, I found it at the Weekly Standard1 at "Transcript of President Obama's Remarks at Tucson, Arizona." The transcript is marked "as prepared for delivery," not "as delivered." The little bit of comparison I was able to make did not surface major differences.

I thought the President struck the right tone in his speech. His speech writer(s) is (are?) gifted, and these gifts are particularly in evidence in what he asked of his listeners.

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

Let's pass on the most obvious question that a political opponent will raise regarding the above paragraphs, namely, "What are the President's standards of civility? What, in his mind, constitutes civil discourse?" What he says, on its face, is both true and good. Nevertheless, I see major problems that remain in our task of facing up "to our challenges as a nation."

  • Although the President's exhortation "Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle." is a good one, it should be obvious that the tiger has been out of the cage since Saturday. The damage caused by the pettiness of pundits is almost impossible to walk back, and so far I see little effort to walk it back.
  • The President made a major contribution to the dialog by acknowledging that "it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy." He did not, of course, proceed to chastise those who did make hay on this specious claim, but it is understandable that a President would not want to put his own base on the defensive in this context.
  • The President's primary point, "only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation," is right on target. Both civility and candor are necessary in public discourse. In the absence of civility, the conversation degenerates into backbiting. In the absence of candor, it degenerates into platitudes. Striking the right balance between these frequently opposing demands is a challenge most pundits are utterly incapable, it seems, of finding, much less mastering.

At this point, its necessary to revisit the question I passed over at the beginning. We need to ask ourselves what constitutes civility in public discourse? It seems to me that part of the answer to this question is fairly obvious, but much of it remains shrouded in controversy.

  1. Avoid accusing your opposition of evil or insane motives. If you have major doubts about someone's motives, it's o.k. to express your concerns, but its not o.k. to claim certainty. Doing so is morally presumptuous and damaging to civil discourse. Wherever possible, assume good motives. Normally, motives are not the major point of contention. Ideas, information and policies are.
  2. When your opponent holds a position of public trust, advert to him or her using an appropriate title that acknowledges that position. It is not necessary to connect the title to the person's name every time you use it in a given context, but it is civil to do so at least once, and preferably at the beginning.
  3. In the absence of such a title, it is appropriate to refer to the person using such a generic title as "Mr." or "Ms." only if they do not hold a doctorate or other distinction that normally demands a more specific title. It is polite to use titles wherever they are appropriate, but overuse can be considered pedantic or overly formal, even condescending.
  4. In general, show respect toward your opponent and avoid condescension. Showing condescension in public discourse may not formally be a deal breaker, but it is highly likely to be detrimental to dialog. Unless your primary purpose is to expose the thin skin of your opponent, avoid it. Indeed, if your assessment of the thickness of your opponent's skin is actually mistaken, your condescension is likely to backfire.
  5. Avoid the use of demeaning pejoratives, particularly those directed against the person of your opponent. If you find that your opponent is simply repeating claims that you feel you have already painstakingly debunked, bear in mind that your deprecations of his or her claims may be justified, but could also backfire, particularly if your opponent is not motivated to give room to your exasperation or your intended audience is impatient or not getting your critique. Note especially, that personal invective is almost never justified, particularly if it is directed not at a pattern of behavior but at motives or capacities.
  6. Avoid overreacting to disputants who violate these principles. It's fine to point out such violations, and it may legitimately be a major part of the stock in trade of a pundit to do so. In the meantime, avoid being the first one to "take the gloves off" or to resort to demonizing a boorish opponent. Doing so only escalates already overheated differences.
  7. The boundary between irony and sarcasm can easily get blurred. The word sarcasm comes from the Greek for "tearing flesh." It is, at its base, vicious. It all comes down to motives, and, as we all know, motives are easily misinterpreted or even impugned. It is readily the case that while one person may perceive deft irony, another may perceive sarcasm. The more divided people are on the issues, the more likely it is that there will be a large gulf in this very perception2. When we notice this happening, we have a moral obligation to step back and examine our own perceptions and motives, and avoid claiming sarcasm in the absence of clear evidence. The problem is that irony can be every bit as painful as sarcasm to the target. Pain, by itself, is not a reliable guide to the analysis of your opponents motives3. To do this properly, we need to advert back to point 1., and avoid claiming to know that the opponent's motives are evil or insane. Once we cross this line, we should not be surprised that dialog is over or pretend that we had nothing to do with ending it.

Obviously, articulating these principles is unlikely to resolve or diminish bad manners that have been cultivated over a period of years. Having some clarity on these issues, however, should help us to not have unrealistic expectations regarding the ability of one side or the other to lead the country to a place of genuine civility and civic responsibility. It should go without saying that a good leader will lead first by example, and then by reflection and explanation. Let's hope and pray that our pundits and public servants will "get it" before it is too late. If they do not, and the present chaos only increases until civilization itself is sacrificed on the altar of "making points," let's not become consumed by never-ending finger pointing. Rather, let's turn to the God who made us and seek his guidance and healing, for our own poor powers will have proved insufficient.

  • 1. For some reason, this was the first page to show up in a Google search for "president tucson transcript." The Weekly Standard is described by Wikipedia as a neo-conservative magazine. Obviously, I'm not a neo-conservative, nor am I a big fan of the Weekly Standard. Be that as it may, I see no reason to mistrust the accuracy of the transcript.
  • 2. It is my belief that this is the main reason there is such a huge gulf in perceptions of the words of Gov. Sarah Palin. Where I see irony, someone else sees sarcasm. This is particularly true in her comments on major players in the Democratic establishment, and most particularly true in her comments about President Obama, former House Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid. Where I see a fine young woman with a gift for speech, others see a lout.
  • 3. Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal," is deeply ironic and ought very well to have been deeply painful to its target. Nevertheless, I would maintain, it was not vicious. On the contrary, his motives were clearly to elevate society, not to diminish it.