The Corner

Civility, Seating, and Substance

A strange commentary on our society is that in the days leading up to the President’s 2011 State of the Union address, the biggest story may not have been the speech itself but the seating of individual members of Congress. A mature democracy that spends this much time analyzing such a basic principle has regressed. The question for conservatives is how to direct our national conversation where it belongs — to the very real problems facing the nation, such as the fact that we’re going bankrupt.

Of course, we are having this discussion not because of the Tucson shootings, but because of the media’s coverage of the shootings. Conservatives had every right to be offended by the Left’s initial knee-jerk narrative blaming conservative rhetoric. Yet, as I mentioned on Meet the Press and discussed with Hugh Hewitt last week, the tendency of conservatives to spend their time overcorrecting this ludicrous narrative contributes to the problem. We should spend 10 percent of our time discussing how to discuss the problem and the other 90 percent discussing the problem. The more time we spend defending ourselves the less time we have to make our case about issues that matter.

Thankfully, the American people have already made up their mind that the problem in the country is our debt, not incivility as defined narrowly by liberals in Congress and the media. The public is upset because our national leaders have been ignoring the real problem and, instead, have been attacking the people for being concerned. In the past two years, we’ve had national leaders, who represent the institutions of government, essentially tossing rhetorical tear gas into a crowd of peaceful protestors, demanding that they disperse and go home. Calling dissenting citizens “un-American” “evil-doers” who are part of an “angry mob” tells those citizens their views are illegitimate. This rhetoric has been vastly more corrosive to our civil discourse than talk radio and cable chatter. The good news is that the American people responded peacefully and fired many of the politicians who were making this ridiculous charge.

Keeping the debate focused on issues, not media personalities or politicians, is important because the goal of some on the left — whether deliberate or not — is censorship, not civility. They don’t want conservatives making their case. If dissent can be labeled “uncivil” then they have won the debate. The perverse logic of this censorship argument goes something like this: If delivering information about the condition of the country and the severity of our problems makes people angry, then the people who deliver such information are uncivil and contributing to a climate of hatred and vitriol. Obviously, the problem is the problem itself, not those who explain the problem.

Fortunately, many progressives in Congress do want to at least debate real problems. My friend and colleague Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) — who I am happy to sit next to at the State of the Union — and I agree that civility does not mean setting aside disagreement. Instead, civility means having the serious, strenuous debate the country needs in a manner that produces the best policies. We are both confident in our ideas — conservative and progressive — and believe our side will prevail in a free, fair, and open debate. We also recognize the limits of our insight and acknowledge that the other side is motivated by the same love of country.

Conservatives have nothing to lose by making the effort to persuade the other side. We should be setting the tone by our actions, not just our words. Demonstrating how to debate real issues respectfully strengthens our case because the facts, and the math, are on our side.

Let me leave you with a few Proverbs that define civility far better than anything I’ve read in recent weeks.

Proverbs 19:11 — “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.”

Proverbs 25:21–22 — “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

Proverbs 15:1–2 — “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.”

Proverbs 25:15 — “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.”

Tom Coburn represents Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate.

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