17 March 2011

Washington’s Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior

In the wake of the assassination attempt of Rep. Gabriel Giffords (D-AZ 8th), there has been an ersatz effort to instill civility in public discourse.  From the establishment of the National Institute for Civil Discourse to last week’s White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, which gathered several Cabinet Secretaries along with the First Couple to tackle civility amongst schoolchildren.

Being a political animal living between-the-beltways favorite contact sport is politics, I expect to have intense exchanges with ideas with whom I differ. The District of Calamity (sic) is one of the most partisan places anywhere, so civility is crucial. While I do not aspire for superficial consensus, I expect clarity in a civil conversation.  Alas, such social graces are not always readily on display.

I recall having conversations with couple of professional collogues who had clear liberal leanings who thought nothing about labeling conservative community organizers as “Teabaggers”.  After the invective is invoked a few times, I have to interrupt their venomous vituperations by asking, “Do you realize the crude sexual slur that you are invoking?”  The coprophagic smile is a tell tale sign that the interlocultors think that they have cleverly scored points with their intentional insult. Such hedonistic hubris has promoted me to say: "While I enjoy chatting about current events and it’s fine if we disagree, I hope that we can do it without being disagreeable.”  This elicits a nod for its reasonableness.  So I continue:

What if I referred to the 42nd President–Bill Jefferson Clinton–as B.J. Clinton?  It’s funny true enough and  kind of apt, but it does not allow for an exchange of ideas. OK, can I call Democrats by their mascot–the jackass?  Once again, humorous and some semblance of truth but it seems like those are kind of like fighting words for nothing of significance.

Surprisingly, that rhetorical tactic has pierced the veil of incivility, albeit in environments which require collegiality in close quarters.

But the union inspired thuggery and incivility that has been on display in the Wisconsin State Capitol over the last few weeks has started to been seen between-the-beltways.  Yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) was trapped inside of a fundraiser in Washington when a couple of thousand union protestors “spontaneously” shut down rush hour traffic to protest and block the building lobby.  Such contentious hardball tactics recently received a bureaucratic blessing from the National Labor Relations Board in a decision over a 2008 workplace representation election at MasTec DirecTV.  In the age of Obama, what constitutes a threat of violence in a workplace is to be determined by a complex set of criteria that requires massive administrative litigation before the determination is made.  Effectively, the NLRB encouraged Unions to go “Break a leg” when muscling for union organizing elections.

With this in mind, I came across some personal principles from George Washington.  Recent biographies which humanized our first President also reminded us that Washington had quite a temper which learned to govern.  At the age of sixteen, Washington transcribed “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” for his Jesuit instructors. These maxims helped morally mold the man throughout his military, diplomatic and public policy career. Those platitudes are in part:

  • Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.
  • Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.
  • In writing or speaking, give to every person his due title according to his degree and the custom of the place.
  • When a man does all he can, though it succeeds not well, blame not him that did it.
  • Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
  • Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for 'tis better to be alone than in bad company.
  • Let your conversation be without malice or envy...And in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.
  • Undertake not what you cannot perform, but be careful to keep your promise.
  • When you speak of God and his attributes, let it be seriously and with reverence. Honor and obey your natural parents although they be poor.
  • Let your recreations be manful, not sinful.
  • Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

These maxims helped morally mold Washington throughout his military, diplomatic and public policy career. There is a famous instance of William  Payne who physically assaulted George Washington during a political argument and got away with it.  Even though Washington was a military commander, he did not seek retribution.  Washington requested a meeting with Payne the next day when Washington apologized for losing his temper in an unprotected moment and expressed the hope that they could still be friends.  But do not mistake Washington as a polite pushover.  Even when negotiating the American defeat in the Battle of New York of 1776, Washington refused the first two communiques from British Admiral Howe as Washington was respectively addressed as a General (and giving tacit recognition to the American opposition).

As President Washington extolled in his farewell address, “Observe good faith and justice towards all. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.”   Washington’s Rules of Civil Discourse and Decent Behavior should be better heeded amongst the body politic as we work through trying public policy disputes without bullying or acting like political hooligans.

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