I applaud your Sept. 13 column on civil discourse. The lack of civility, however, is only part of the problem. Civil behavior is a historically fluid concept that, like other social norms, has changed over time. Its connection to democracy is complicated. Reasoned debate and truthfulness are necessary to democratic deliberation, but too fastidious attention to “civility” can stifle it.
Americans have a right to express their views, but they do not have a right to have those views taken seriously or publicized. The problem with many of the views recently expressed in our town hall meetings and in the letters section of this newspaper (fear of death panels, etc.), is not that they are uncivil as much as that they are unreasoned and willfully misleading. Publishing them provides exposure that they do not merit.
Democracy thrives on reasoned debate and contestation of ideas. Demagoguery thrives on ignorance, hatred, fear and misinformation. Shouting uninformed views louder does not change their fundamental character. Some have engaged in this festivity of ignorance out of their own lack of knowledge. Others (including prominent politicians) know better and they have behaved cynically. Either way, we should refuse to give a platform to demagogues.
Cornell W. Clayton
C.O. Johnson distinguished professor of political science, Washington State University