Congressional shooting offers opportunity to recommit to civility

The social and cultural historian Jacques Barzun observed, "whoever wants to know the heart and the mind of America had better learn baseball." Baseball captures the essence of what it means to be an individual but also to be a part of national community; it is the ultimate team sport that nevertheless relies on highly specialized contributions from each player.

Last Wednesday's tragic shooting at the early morning baseball practice for the Republican congressional team has deeply challenged the hearts and minds of Americans. This tragedy occurred at a baseball practice for the congressional baseball charity game, which provides the context for a redemptive response. As former Major League Baseball Commissioner and Yale University President A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote: “on matters of decency, baseball should lead the way.”

It is not surprising that most people in political life, from the left and the right, have avoided the temptation to politicize this tragedy and have instead seized this moment as an opportunity to seek a recommitment to civility in public life. America’s unique brand of “civility” — for example, that practiced by the revolutionary generation of our founders — does not seek unanimity of opinion but instead thrives on vigorous debate. It is what I term “vigorous civility.”

Vigorous civility relies on three core principles. First, we should assume the best in each other, and not suspect the motives of those with whom we disagree. Second, we should disagree without attacking each other personally — dispute, without delegitimizing. Third, and most relevant to the events of last week, we must begin a debate, especially a contentious one, with a forced search for common ground. By common ground I do not mean the illusion of universal agreement but rather acknowledgement of universal values on which our republic, and indeed Western civilization, is founded. Every difficult discussion, at the workplace, the family table, the playground, and Capitol Hill is the chance continually to reenact the ideal of “vigorous civility.”

Some years ago, I was invited to participate in a symposium on hate crime legislation with a scholar with whom I had debated many times in print and in person. Whereas I am an advocate for laws that distinguish bias-motivated crimes and seek enhanced punishment, she was an opponent of bias crime laws, believing them to be inappropriate attempts to prohibit certain types of thought. We were asked to submit papers for the symposium expressing our views. We had done this many times before. Coincidentally, I had just read an op-ed article co-authored by a pro-life advocate and a pro-choice advocate. Although their article made clear their fundamental disagreement on abortion rights, they were determined to produce an article that set out their many points of shared commitment and agreement. With their article as my inspiration, I reached out to the colleague with whom I debated so many times and suggested that instead of merely articulating the positions we had each previously written, we should commit ourselves to produce a jointly authored article setting out the many points of agreement we share. Each of us felt that this piece was a major contribution to our work. The goal was not to paper over differences but to state with clarity our shared positions. I was reminded of the words that my law professor, Charles Black, wrote of his colleague and intellectual adversary Alexander Bickel: “we agreed in everything but our opinions.”

Last Wednesday’s tragedy provides yet another opportunity to commit ourselves in public life to an articulation of common ground. And baseball gives us the perfect setting in which to do so. The charity baseball game between congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans could instead become an emblem of common ground among those dedicated to public service. Next year, instead of Democrats against Republicans, members of Congress from both parties could populate both teams. In the tradition of generations of sandlot baseball games, each party could select a captain and the two captains could just pick their sides, regardless of party affiliation.

Our members of Congress could begin by searching for common ground on the baseball diamond and continue to do so on Capitol Hill. They would set a model for the rest of the country. It is not too much to hope that civility in public life, like baseball, could become the new American pastime.

Frederick M. Lawrence is a visiting professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University and the Secretary/CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Washington D.C.; his email is flawrence@pbk.org.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°