Rockford Register Star: MY VIEW: Civility Now

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Washington, January 20, 2019 | comments
Congressman Kinzinger's op-ed featured in Rockford Register Star.
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Civility Now By: Adam Kinzinger

Where are we as a society when we no longer debate the ideas, and instead wish severe illness and hypothetical death on the loved ones of our colleagues? This is unacceptable, and it’s time we all get a grip.

Last month, an Illinois State representative said on the floor of the Statehouse that she wanted to feed a “broth of Legionella” to another state representative’s family so they could “suffer…and ultimately die.” This particularly disturbing language showcases another low point in the over-the-top rhetoric coming from both sides of the aisle, and reveals yet another brick in the wall of division deeply damaging the state of our nation.

Heated debates are nothing new in our long history of democracy, including the infamous brawl on the U.S. House Floor back in 1858. But we’re supposed to learn from history. In this current environment, such vicious political discourse is not only concerning, but damaging to the future of our country.

America was built on passion. Passion to build a better way, passion to serve a bigger purpose, passion to create and imagine, and passion to debate political differences freely and fairly.  This passion and determination made us the most powerful country in the world, with no sunset on that title as far as I can see.  Our economic and military strength complement our innovative ideas and good-natured hearts.  This passion is good, but allowing emotions to overrule our ideas can lead to a breakdown in civil society, and I fear we’re on a path that will destroy America’s foundation and the values We the People hold dear.

Everyone needs to take responsibility, and recognize our own failings. Our public discourse problem is not about who is more wrong.  Yes, President Trump’s rhetoric can cross the line and too often it does.  Yes, Republican and Democrat public officials also cross that line.  Yes, I personally have crossed the line before, and may let passion get the best of me again in the future.  Understanding the issue and taking responsibility for the role we play is crucial. What we need is less blame, and more self-reflection. What legacy are we leaving for our children? 

Hateful rhetoric on one side is seemingly justified because of hateful rhetoric on the other side, leading to an unnecessary and childish escalation of more hateful rhetoric.  In the end, neither side will acquiesce to the anger of the other and the issue at hand is lost, along with the value of our debate. We see ramped up escalations that risk things turning violent, and then what? I have been to several countries around the world that resorted to violence rather than civil debate, and I can tell you, it does not work for the people on either side or for the longevity and prosperity of a nation at odds. 

We can and should be passionate about things like healthcare, tax rates, energy, climate, and the whole host of issues debated daily.  But a society that falls apart over differences of opinion will devolve into a society of chaos, facing a different set of challenges, like basic survival and defending your family from the anarchy around you.  No police force will show up, no military will march in, and no supermarket will carry your favorite brand of kale.  This may seem like a huge leap to go from heated words to civil strife, but what will it take to stop this severe escalation of anger to the eventual end of our free society?

Most people today get their news from outlets that reflect their own opinions.  Dinners with friends no longer include the “conservative” or “liberal” person as a guaranteed buzzkill.  Our friends, family, churches, and clubs are now broken into silos over what someone thinks the tax rate should be or if they think climate change is man-made or natural.  Good times devolve into heated arguments over the slightest mention or assumption that something said was even remotely, possibly, or potentially politically charged.  Perhaps worst of all, major declines in the faith of our institutions of government has led people to feel underrepresented and unheard. Accusations of rigged election systems increases, and people feel powerless. Unfortunately, people who feel marginalized sometimes act in the only way they feel like they can make an impact—through violence.

At our core, we know that violence is never the answer to our problems. We have to take a step back, and remember we can have passionate disagreements and fiery debates without resorting to hate-filled violence. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” We need to remember that we have far more that unites us than divides us.

To solve our rhetoric issue, we need to tone it down. We must demand more from our leaders, and ourselves. Our political, religious, and community leaders need to act more responsibly (myself included), and we each need to use our words to demand better from them.  We need to look at how we tweet, post, and talk to each other, and understand that the majority of the issues we get so worked up over are not matters of life and death, but a reflection of what we want in our government. 

You will win some debates and lose on others, there will be moments of anger and elation. But, I assure you, it’s much nicer to feel defeat while watching the news at home, eating your kale, and tucking your kids into bed safe and sound, knowing that the blanket of government, no matter how flawed, will protect them, and you.

Remember that the freedoms we enjoy here should never be taken for granted. It’s on each of us to do better individually, and engage by electing leaders who reflect the values of this great nation, who will serve with respect and dignity for the office they hold. Let’s set a better example for our children, and for the rest of the world who looks to America as a beacon of hope and opportunity. We are the greatest country on Earth, and the best gift we can give the next generation is to restore the civility our society so desperately needs.

The original op-ed was featured on Rockford Register Star's website here.

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