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Civility leaving the public square

Civil: "Adhering to the norms of polite social intercourse; not deficient in common courtesy."

By calling President Barack Obama a liar in the middle of a televised joint session of Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson exemplified the uncivil tenor of public policy discussion that has been evolving in the public square.

Congressman Wilson is not a unique example of incivility. His conduct was the capstone to a month of stormy town hall meetings at which thousands of health care reform proponents and exponents turned purple with rage, lacking totally in common courtesy. One intemperate person even told Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania that he would go to hell for supporting health care reform. For a month, we witnessed incivility at its worst.

Common courtesy is becoming more uncommon as time passes. Explaining widespread incivility in a country with a tradition of free and reasonable discussion is difficult. This kind of dialogue on public issues is not rational. It is emotional; suggesting the root cause of this hysteria must be emotional.

Incivility is not a short-term problem. The entertainment industry is doing its best to foster incivility. Sitcoms are thought to be funny when a youngster bad-mouths parents or demeans some person for whom respect should be shown. With television setting behavioral norms for young people, we can expect an even more uncivil world as young viewers grow up on this diet of disrespect.

Anticipating an outbreak of incivility over the Sioux logo, University of North Dakota officials are preparing guidelines to preempt outbursts among the opponents and proponents of a name change. There is cause for concern because intemperate, uncivil comments will abound no matter which way the decision goes.

We lament the arrival of a polarized society, meaning that we are shifting away from the middle ground and a chasm is growing between the proponents and opponents of public issues. With this chasm separating us, it is easy to become uncivil.

This uncivil climate has evolved because Americans are running scared. It seems that the destruction of the Trade Towers started unraveling our demeanor. This disaster was soon followed by a wholesale loss of jobs and the destruction of retirement funds. Everyone is convinced that Social Security and Medicare are going broke. We have the wolf right the front door for many folks and are experiencing a siege mentality.

One summer, when our softball team was on top of the league, one of the players turned to me and said: "We are in a terrible situation. The only way we can go is down."

That's the way many Americans feel. As the richest nation on earth, we have more to lose than any other country and, as we see the threat of terrorists abroad and a collapsing economy at home, we have become paralyzed with the fear of losing our privileged world. The incivility indicates that we have started eating each other.