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Winston Churchill once said: “Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”
There’s no shortage of outrage in America today. Coarse language, entrenched political beliefs, efforts to silence those you disagree with, and a 24/7/365 media prone to sensationalism are eroding an essential ingredient of democracy and progress – civility.
It’s tough to make progress in a 50-50 nation, especially when the two sides prefer shouting over sharing and making a point over making a law. The result is a less civil, more bombastic political conversation that frankly disgusts many Americans and prevents our government from solving problems.
In this environment, there’s a growing faction of people who are no longer content to argue the merits of their ideas with their opponents – they simply want to silence their voices and shut them out of the debate. I can’t think of anything more un-American – or more dangerous – than a frontal attack on free speech, the bedrock of our democracy.
Restoring civility is something we all need to take personally and work on every day. We try to set an example at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by ensuring that all of our employees are respected in the workplace. We insist that our employees demonstrate good manners and high integrity. We work with any credible group to advance issues we agree on or help bridge differences of opinion to achieve a policy that will benefit all sides. We focus on policies, not personalities.
We believe that our right to speak carries with it the responsibility to listen, give others a fair hearing, and be open to different points of view. You can be tough without being a jerk, or trying to run those you disagree with right out of the public square.
Restoring civility to our public dialogue is a challenge, but let’s not wax nostalgic about the past. Thomas Jefferson once called Alexander Hamilton the son of a whore, and Hamilton publicly exposed Jefferson’s affair with his slave. During the debate over the abolition of slavery, one senator nearly caned his colleague to death on the Senate floor. And our nation did, after all, endure a bloody Civil War.
As Mahatma Gandhi once advised us: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Civility starts with each of us. Wouldn’t engaging in a respectful dialogue with someone you disagree with be a great way to honor the founding of our country on the Fourth of July?