We are not enemies, but friends

Lowell Harp
Posted 1/22/24

There’s a hunger in America for civility. I hear it again and again from people who follow this column. They mourn its decline because they understand a crucial fact: Democracy dies when civility disappears.

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We are not enemies, but friends


There’s a hunger in America for civility. I hear it again and again from people who follow this column. They mourn its decline because they understand a crucial fact: Democracy dies when civility disappears.

We can be both free and safe only if each of us exercises the self-restraint and tolerance that characterize civility. Without it, we end up with a government that replaces personal responsibility with rules imposed from above. The loss of civility is the first step on the path to dictatorship.

It’s crucial, then, to know exactly what that word, “civility,” means. Dictionary definitions that speak of courtesy and politeness, as if it were just a matter of following the rules of etiquette, fail to reach into its core. Real civility flows from the inside out.

It arises from “a fundamental respect for human dignity especially for those we don’t really like…and with whom we strongly disagree,” in the words of Alexandra Hudson in the Feb. 12, 2020 Washington Examiner. It’s “the necessary social glue that binds us together in times of adversity,” times when events conspire to pull us apart.

Abraham Lincoln’s “fierce civility” was essential to his greatness as a leader in war and peace, according to Jeremy J. Lloyd in the February 2020 National Review. It enabled him to earn the respect and admiration of a “team-of-rivals” cabinet, and to hold the nation together in its darkest hour. It was behind his respectful treatment of his opponents in the North, as well as his generosity toward the people of the South.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask for us to follow Lincoln’s example. It is, after all, the opposite of the pride and combativeness that popular culture celebrates. Civility requires us to be humble, to listen to our opponents and try to understand them; to admit that we may be wrong in some respects; to resist the temptation to engage in personal attacks; to avoid loaded words that push peoples’ emotional buttons.

It’s hard to imagine a modern leader like Lincoln, and easy to find those who are his opposite. Donald Trump and his imitators on the right are too obvious to need any explanation. Many of us, though, don’t see the incivility that comes from the other side.

Disrespect and mockery are the stock-in-trade of late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live comedy skits. Politicians speak disdainfully about “deplorables” or “MAGA Republicans.” Cancel culture provides the ugly spectacle of conservatives, or even moderates, being shouted down, silenced, or shamed on college campuses.

I was surprised to find, when searching the internet for this article, that writers opposed to civility were uniformly liberal. Their reasons boil down to the proposition that uncivil behavior is needed in order to overcome oppression from the rich and powerful.

This argument confuses civility with meek pleading. Abraham Lincoln was clear and forceful about exactly where he stood. But he was an effective force for change because he never forgot that his opponents, no matter how dislikable, were entitled to respect as human beings.

Uncivil speech and actions fail to persuade anyone other than those who already agree, because people sense its lack of good will, and therefore resist it. Donald Trump’s boorish and insensitive behavior has cost him dearly. It’s why he’s never succeeded in earning the support of a majority of Americans, in spite of the popular appeal of many of his policies.

Liberals, on the other hand, only harden Mr. Trump’s standing among his supporters when they respond to him in kind. People in the middle, who might otherwise be persuaded, merely look on in disgust at the ugliness on both sides.

Incivility thrives nevertheless, perhaps because it’s like an addiction. It feels so very good to mock, ridicule, or otherwise disrespect those we oppose and fear. Each time we do it, it becomes more likely that we’ll do it again.

There’s unfortunately no 12-step program, as in Alcoholics Anonymous, for incivility. We can, however, find a way forward in Mr. Lloyd’s description of Abraham Lincoln—"humble, kind, self-deprecating, not easily intimidated, principled, non-reactionary, magnanimous, and peacemaking.”

We can hope to live up to that ideal if, as Lincoln urged, we listen to “the better angels of our nature.” We can, with their guidance, forcefully but respectfully stand up for our beliefs while declaring to all of our fellow Americans, as Lincoln did on the eve of war:

“We are not enemies, but friends.”

Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs monthly in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at http://fb.me/lowellharp.