State of civility in a turbulent era

Why patience and decency are vital to the American project

On April 8, Jimmy Kimmel, the noted comedian and late-night talk show host, declared on his Twitter account he was ending a feud with Fox News regular Sean Hannity. According to USA Today, the Twitter feud between the two began as a result of a joke Kimmel made about First Lady Melania Trump’s accent.

Hannity, an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, immediately took exception with Kimmel’s comments, leading to a back-and-forth in which Hannity termed Kimmel “Harvey Weinstein, Jr,” while Kimmel likened Hannity to a circus.

In his declaratory tweet, Kimmel proclaimed “the level of vitriol from all sides (mine and me included) does nothing good for anyone and, in fact, is harmful to our country.”

Kimmel’s words immediately resonated with me. If you watch the news, have a Twitter account or converse with people in your community, you would  know the American political climate has become increasingly polarized.

The spat between Kimmel and Hannity highlights the growing divide between some Americans. This polarization has occurred along party lines, as the Pew Research Center has found.

“An average 36-percentage-point gap between Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and Democrats and Democratic leaners,” the center found.

However, as some Americans drift further apart ideologically, it is important for us to maintain a space for civil public discourse.

Obviously, this can be a challenge when Trump, shows no interest in doing so. Throughout his time in office and on the campaign trail, Trump has routinely used Twitter to excoriate members of his own party: Liddle Bob Corker; members of the Democratic Party; Cryin’ Chuck Schumer; even members of the media, like Mika Brzezinski and the media outlets CNN and the New York Times.

While this behavior is unbecoming of the most important civil service position in the world, Americans should take caution not to follow this lead.

Even as Trump pursues a path of bitterness and close-mindedness, we as Americans must be willing to listen to those who disagree with us, and not target others simply based on their voting history.

Like many Americans, I was shocked, angered and disheartened by the news of yet another mass shooting. However, even as strong emotions are evoked, we must remain civil and willing to listen.

With this in mind, I was disappointed to see the level of vitriol directed at  Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio in the wake of the shooting. While Rubio has been supportive of the National Rifle Association, he was willing to participate in a Town Hall hosted by CNN and, according CNN’s website, has proposed legislation that would restrict firearm access to dangerous persons.

In spite of this, Rubio has been unfairly maligned in recent speeches and the prominent “March For Our Lives.” In sum, while we must remain dedicated to enacting positive change, we must not be willing to vilify public officials who are willing to engage in public discourse. If we do, we will be left with leaders who have no interest in being civil.

In addition, and though I am personally opposed to much of the rhetoric and policies put forth by Trump, it is simply unfair to cast all Trump voters as bigots. As the unlikely election of Trump and movement of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary suggest, many Americans have become disillusioned with a political establishment they feel has failed them.

To quote Senator Claire McCaskill who was quoted in Newsweek, “frustration is a powerful motivator and if you’ve played by the rules and worked hard all your life and you’re further behind this year than you were 10 years ago, no wonder you want something completely different.”

As McCaskill’s statement represents, we must recognize the needs of many Americans who feel they have been neglected, even if they disagree with us.

At Allegheny, we can play a large role in maintaining this civility. Each year, we award a Prize for Civility in Public Life that “seeks to honor public figures who have demonstrated steadfast civility throughout their career or have shown authentic, courageous civility at an important moment in time.”

Last year, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, both friends but ideological opposites, won the prize. In 2016, then Vice President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain received the prize.

These honorees exemplify that even though we may strongly disagree with our counterparts, we do not have to disrespect them. In the spirit of this award, I was happy to be in the audience for a debate held between the College Democrats and College Republicans in early December. As a community, we must continue to hold events like this. We must continue to listen to both sides, and must always remember that we are all Americans.

This is not to say we should not condemn racism, sexism, or any other form of discrimination. We should always be willing and able to call out those who blatantly express hatred — as Trump failed to do after Charlottesville.

However, when opposing arguments are presented in a respectful, civil manner, we must be willing to engage in a conversation without resorting to hyperbole or name-calling.

As Atticus Finch claimed, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Even as we hurl towards political polarization, be willing to listen to the views of those who disagree with you. In the end, we are all Americans.