America needs heroic civility in an age of contempt

America needs heroic civility in an age of contempt
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This has been a season of tragedy for Americans, who have endured shocking loss of life caused by hurricanes, epic floods and a mass murderer.  But perhaps the most enduring tragedy is the steady erosion of Americans’ ability to talk about difficult events and rise above pettiness in order to meet our challenges as a society.  

This sad deterioration in our civic culture has been underway for some time. It is exacerbated when political parties seeking short term gain encourage political tribalism. It is advanced by self-serving media figures bent on stoking conflict and controversy at every opportunity. It inevitably results when national figures adopt coarse language and uncompromising positions that appeal to niche groups of hardened fans.

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The aftermath of the horrific shootings in Las Vegas revealed just how far our national discourse has fallen. The Washington Post reported that a CBS News executive was fired after saying that some of the victims of the Las Vegas massacre did not deserve sympathy because they were “Republican gun toters.”

Salon reported that a right-wing website jumped to the conclusion that someone from the “far left” must be behind the shooting.  Partisans on both sides tried to use the tragedy as a cudgel against their political opponents. These are but the latest examples of a public square plagued by language that has descended into the realm of contempt.

There is no denying that the issue of gun regulation is fraught with emotion and disagreement. A national consensus on gun control has been elusive precisely because the issue is hard and passions run high.  But our goal as a country must be to protect and nurture the ability to debate hard issues, and that means rejecting language that casts the other side as the enemy. That destroys trust, the one attribute necessary for us to bounce back from tragedy.  

As evidence of just how low our national reservoirs of trust have been depleted, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently felt it necessary to ask American service members to “hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other.”  Sebastian Junger, a former war correspondent and author of the recent book “Tribe,” describes the dramatic psychological shock these returning combat vets feel when exposed to the contemptuous language in our political debates.  

For warfighters the vitriolic language common in today’s public space is a stark indicator that the nation they risked their lives to defend overseas is bitterly divided at home. We can use their example to help heal these divisions, but it will require that the forces of heroic civility gather to counter the powerful forces pushing our national debate ever downward.  

American capacity for greatness is evident in our service members who, despite holding vastly divergent views on many issues, treat each other with great civility and respect. No matter what opinions they hold or what corner of America they call home, each of these warriors would sacrifice his or her life to keep the others safe.  That is their American experience.  We should honor those who risk so much for our country by showing them we are willing to live by their example here at home.

In a poignant speech to his Senate colleagues informed by his own experiences as a naval aviator and prisoner of war, Senator John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE, R-Ariz., exhorted his colleagues to start trusting in each other again. “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and the television and the Internet. To hell with them,” McCain said, before accurately observing that “they don't want anything done for the public good — our incapacity is their livelihood. Let's trust each other.”  

Rebuilding trust is key, and it starts with a civility that concedes that your fellow citizens love and believe in this country, and wish it to prosper, just as much as you do. From that kind of civility flows reasoned debate, which builds trust in each other’s motivations, eventually enabling cooperation and unity of effort.

As a former Foreign Service officer, I lived in many places around the world where the lack of trust in the motivations of fellow citizens destroyed hopes of political compromise, leaving their societies in shambles and often resulting in bloodshed. Places like Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq seem far from the American experience, but the relative peace and stability our nation has enjoyed came from the strenuous efforts of Americans to preserve a public square and political space where weighty issues can be debated with civility and mutual respect. That should never be taken for granted.

To be sure, contemptuous language has its upsides for the dividers that traffic in it.  It grabs headlines, ensures television and social media coverage, and riles up partisan crowds.  But true patriotism demands an accounting of the costs.  

Contemptuous language appeals to our lowest instincts, and tears at the national fabric. It breeds disillusionment in voters who cannot understand why their elected leaders are incapable of setting aside divisive slogans that pander to the darkest side of our natures. It betrays our children who watch us and wonder what kind of legacy we are passing down.

Even in the absence of political consensus, we must avoid sinking into the abyss of contemptuous name calling. Americans should instead show the world that we can still debate complex and difficult challenges with civility, and unify in the face of crisis, in order to move forward together. That is the essence of American greatness.

Glenn Nye is a former member of Congress from Virginia and the current president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.