So what will it take to make us civil? And what is civility, anyway?

Monday’s Citizens’ Civility Symposium, sponsored by the Institute for Civility in Government, addressed a whole range of issues, including these. The all-star cast included the former vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission, the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, two other (active or retired) members of Congress, the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, a renowned Christian social critic, and a Houston principal who brokered peace among the 15 gangs in her school.

The plenary panels focused on two topics: civility on Capitol Hill and civility in our communities. The insights came fast and furious, and I believe the Institute will post a video of the proceedings on its website. For now, a few highlights:

Youth Will Be Served

Young people were a leitmotif throughout both panels. As former Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) sees it, any initiative to instill civility in public life must begin with children. NEH chair Jim Leach took it one step further, noting that the young—who, surveys have found, are substantially more tolerant than their forebears—will need to train the rest of us in civility. Several speakers mentioned the need for families to teach civility, especially around that rapidly disappearing icon of family life: the dinner table.

Just Be Nice? Not on Your Life

Does civility equal politeness, or “making nice,” or papering over differences? None of the above. Leach cited the requests of some campaign contributors—“as you’ll recall, we helped you get elected, Senator, and now there’s a vote coming up, and we’d sure like it if you voted this way”—as uncivil speech wrapped in polite clothing. On another front, former 9/11 vice-chair Lee Hamilton said, “You want the system to have a clash of ideas, and you want those ideas put forth robustly. But there is a line you do not cross.”

Echoing this, Os Guinness argued for a different type of public square: not dominated by one faith, not thoroughly secular, but a place where everyone is free to bring faith into the discussion while working within the framework of justice and fairness for all. Guinness believes that a truly global public square is beginning to emerge, and even those who considered civility a sign of weakness—like some Christian conservatives—are realizing it’s in their best interest to take their place in that public square.

Where Did Incivility Come From?

P. M. Forni, from Johns Hopkins, cited four principal contributors to today’s incivility: stress, anonymity, lack of time, and lack of restraint. In that context, he asserted that we cannot solve incivility until we correct our current overemphasis on self-esteem in children, because they are growing up with the idea that their needs and desires should be their top priority. Parents need educating, he said, in the idea that social intelligence—including the ability to be civil—is, if anything, more important for success than the intelligence measured by IQ tests.

What Do We Do Now?

Tell our elected representatives we don’t want divisiveness, and call them out on uncivil behavior when they display it (Lee Hamilton). Build relationships across the divide long before the tough issues come up (Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas). Be careful and precise with the language we use: don’t describe a fellow American as a fascist when we lost so many American lives fighting fascism in World War II (Leach). Don’t underestimate the power of one person to change things (Bertie Simmons from Furr High School in Houston). To reach the uncivil, speak to their interests as well as their ideals (Guinness).

And finally this, from Bertie Simmons quoting Oscar Wilde: “Run your fingers through my soul. For once, just once, feel exactly what I feel, believe what I believe, perceive as I perceive, look, experience, examine, and for once, just once, understand.”

Your turn. If you were there, what did I miss? (A ton, I know.) If you weren’t, what do you think? Please click on Comments below and put in your two cents.