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Civility not yet dead in American politics

With all the name-calling and fighting in the current political climate, the ACCoRD project aims to bring some civility to the table.

Civility — the ability to substantively and respectfully discuss issues with those who see things differently from you — is largely assumed to have disappeared from American society.

From California Rep. Maxine Waters’ urging people to “to push back on [administration officials] and… tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere” to Donald Trump’s blasé reaction to Charlottesville’s Nazis and denigration of news reporters, there seem to be few political principals or even leaders in general who strongly speak out for civility on all sides of our polarized America.

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Hillary Clinton recently said that “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That's why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that's when civility can start again. But until then, the only thing that the Republicans seem to recognize and respect is strength."

Why she thinks disparaging and minimizing another political party is the path to civility is beyond me. But there is one area where the disrespect may be even worse than in the political arena: academia.

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If Jeff Flake, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have souls (and saw President Trump's mocking of Christine Blasey Ford), now is the time for them to take a stand.

For the first time in American colleges and universities there is major consensual disparagement of the ostensible cornerstone values of the academy: “academic freedom” and the “marketplace of ideas.”

The National Communication Association (NCA), of which I am a member, oversees communications departments throughout the United States that typically have negligible numbers of self-identified conservatives, though many are presumably afraid to “come out.”

Furthermore, top programs at NCA’s conventions and major journals in our field rarely support conservative policy or conservative political principles. Our NCA president last year gave a keynote address railing against Donald Trump and exalting globalism to a yelling, appreciative crowd of like-minded, angry left-wingers. It was like being at an anti-Trump rally — in fact, it was an anti-Trump rally.

Instead of pining for what was, Democrats must figure out how to thrive in what is, says Leonard Pitts Jr.

The situation, to be fair, is not completely uncomplicated: our regional associations are often far more even-handed.

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Moreover, I am here as a Towson University professor to tell you that while it is true that civility is gasping for breath, it may not be at death’s door.

(Full disclosure: I am a Howard Baker conservative who gets along with virtually all of Towson’s faculty and most of the administration and staff.)

Earlier this month, 74 students from the political persuasion class I teach, plus about 50 other students and faculty members, jammed into my classroom to hear former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger talk about rhetoric and civility.

There was once a time when a leitmotif of humor ran through our national politics. But not today. A somber mood envelops the White House and Capitol Hill. There is certainly plenty to be somber about, but in the old days, even in times of peril, there was room for an uplifting wisecrack.

Dutch is a liberal, and Rep. Pelosi is a progressive, and they spoke to my class and guests for over an hour in support of “practicing civility, even if you disagree with someone’s views,” as Rep. Ruppersberger put it.

The students asked questions, respectfully, and Rep. Pelosi was sharp and on top of her game, touching on many of her favorite issues — diversity, guns, immigration — and I disagreed with her from time to time, again, respectfully. The former speaker sent me a white orchid following her appearance; that’s civility.

No one interrupted anyone, and positions were not stated insipidly.

Would that Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Maxine Waters could have witnessed that great day at Towson University.

Partisan identity is now stronger and more meaningful for many Americans than race, ethnicity or religious denomination — and is viewed as a more legitimate justification for discrimination, says Jonah Goldberg.

Judge Learned Hand, one of the most revered lower-court judges in American history, stated in his “Spirit of Liberty Speech” in 1944, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.”

That is a great credo for those of us who realize the need for the breath of life for civility.

Richard E. Vatz, a Towson University professor, is the author of “The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model” (McGraw-Hill, 2017) and co-editor of “Thomas S. Szasz: the Man and His Ideas” (Transaction Publishers, 2017).

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