President George Washington—first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts and minds of his countrymen—compiled a book known as Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. The little book contained advice for citizens detailing good manners and decorum both public and private.
Arguably, the most important and timely piece of wisdom handed down by Washington was that "Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present." Although he passed away 210 years ago, Washington’s counsel is worthy of consideration in these turbulent times. Not a day goes by without news of anger-fueled tirades from rowdy Americans claiming to represent the conservative movement while expressing themselves boorishly at public town hall meetings conducted by members of Congress.
The level of discourse on display in past weeks is troubling for a variety of reasons.
First, town hall meetings are not "protests." While protests are essential in a democracy as a peaceful means of expressing a viewpoint and necessary in preserving the First Amendment, they are not conducive to the open exchange of ideas at a publicly sponsored town hall meeting. Video surfaced on Aug. 11, 2009 of an unruly gentleman dressing down Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) at a public meeting in Lebanon County. The gentleman became upset when his number was not one of the 30 randomly drawn tickets determining which members of the public would be permitted to speak. Despite the rules of engagement, he continued ranting, raving, and unintelligibly shouting something at Specter about how "God will one day" judge him on his actions as a legislator.
Video footage at town hall meetings conducted by Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC), Specter, and others have been especially excruciating. The "protesters" have made it their business to drown out speakers they disagree with, shout down whatever member of Congress is present while he or she attempts to answer legitimate questions, and cause tussles at entranceways when turned away by security officials due to fire department regulations dictating room occupancy.
Unquestionably, such unadulterated anger and poor behavior leads to meetings designed for citizens to ask questions and exchange information with their legislators to become frustrating experiences that are largely counterproductive.
Second, the situation is reminiscent of newsman Charles McCord’s famous line, in which he frequently asks prickly morning show host Don Imus, "Where is this rage coming from?" as Imus snaps mockingly at his cast and guests. Unfortunately, we have learned that members of the self-described "conservative" establishment such as the bad-tempered Glenn Beck, intellectually void Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, and the former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin have helped fan the flames of rage throughout the country.
Last weekend, Palin even remarked that "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil." Not one iota of this is factually accurate.
There are many very valid reasons to doubt the health care bill in question, particularly its $900 billion price tag. Falsifying information as Palin has done or taking to the airwaves to encourage malleable listeners who hang on every word of rage-filled microphone jockeys to disturb public meetings does an extreme disservice to the public debate on this important issue.
Third, the excessive negativity and ill-mannered efforts to take control of the health care debate displayed in previous weeks could likely have the reverse effect that genuine opposition to a costly health care bill desire. Those seeking to derail the health care train ought to think more carefully of the potential impact their tactics may have on the silent majority, which based upon recent polls, already favor some type of major structural reform.
A Quinnipiac poll that concluded on Aug. 3 showed that 62 percent of Americans support giving people the option of being covered by a government health insurance plan that would compete with private plans. A July 27-28 Time poll indicated that only seven percent remarked that private health insurance providers are doing an excellent job. Lastly, 77 percent told a CNN poll two weeks ago that major structural changes in the nation’s health care system are necessary to ensure that all Americans are covered.
The overall state of quality public discourse in this country is in jeopardy as disruptive conduct at public hearings increases, rage rules the day, and manufactured falsehoods are viewed as authentic. Perhaps the time to recall Washington’s ideas on civility is now.
In 2007, James A. Davis, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates and president of Shenandoah University, took a cut at updating and modernizing Washington’s rules for public civility. Several of Davis’ 100 rules are applicable today and are quoted directly below from Davis’ Rules of Civility for a Modern Society:
"8th: In public forums, exercise restraint in emotional debate so as to make one’s opponent comfortable in responding, but do not accept as normal, interruptions and disruption of the rules of debate previously established. Courtesy should always be the norm of the day.
94th: When given a chance to speak at a public hearing, one should observe the rules of the event and always keep comments focused on the topic, emotionally balanced, non-accusatory, and based on the best and most accurate information available.
96th: Cheering or jeering at a public hearing when one agrees or disagrees with other speakers is bad manners and has the tendency to inflame emotions, intimidate, or anger others, thus harming civil discourse."
Perhaps those heading to a town hall meeting should consider rejecting the discourse-damaging tactics employed recently by some citizens, the false information provided by discredited pols like Palin, and the dubious advice propagated by Beck and company. Instead, we should all take seriously the ideas of Washington and Davis which will ultimately lead us to a more thoughtful, respectful national discussion.
Nathan Shrader can be reached at [email protected] He holds an M.S. in Political Science from Suffolk University and is a 2003 graduate of Thiel College.