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The Death Of Civil Discourse

Christopher Harris

We could all benefit from a review of “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation”, originally composed by French Jesuits in the late 1500s, then translated to English and brought to America during the mid-1600s. These rules, 110 of them, became commonly used by parents and early American schoolmaster’s for penmanship exercises given to pupils. A copy of these 110 rules written by George Washington at the age of 16 are in the Library of Congress. What’s noteworthy isn’t just the fact that Washington and students of his day were given weighty material for exercises in penmanship, but rather, it was the importance placed on children learning civility and decent behavior. All of which are foundational to civil discourse. Gone are the days of training in critical thinking and logic and rhetoric. It’s easier to spew insults at others rather than to articulately present an argument that addresses a topic in a factual and compelling way.

Just look at the political discourse we see in our country today. After viewing political debates, do we really come way with a better understanding of the candidates’ views on the issues? Or has it become nothing more than a political drama of who can one up the other candidates with the most catch phrases? Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy”. At Unhyphenated America, we believe, “America is essentially a set of ideals and principles captured in our Declaration of Independence, and then codified and enumerated in our Constitution. It is those ideals, and our constant struggle to achieve and embody them that makes us great”. We cannot achieve and embody those ideals if we have lost our ability to engage in civil discourse.

In taking the time to read all 110 rules, it became evident to me that these rules are very others focused; as opposed to just self-seeking. These rules represent a time where respect for others was important for the sake of living peaceably together and a precursor to one’s own sense of self-respect. In order for America to become a great nation, it was understood that national identity must be rooted in a common philosophy and shared values. Here are just a few of the rules so you can get the context of this cultural time period:

1st Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

7th Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Dressed

22d Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

23d When you see a Crime punished, you may be inwardly Pleased; but always shew Pity to the Suffering Offender.

49th Use no Reproachfull Language against any one, neither Curse nor Revile.

56th Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.

89th Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.

108th When you Speak of God or his Atributes, let it be Seriously & [wt.] Reverence. Honour & Obey your Natural Parents altho they be Poor.


Today, there is more of a focus on tolerance and political correctness, both of which give only an allusion of respect for others. Essentially, tolerance and political correctness choke the life out of conversations that could enhance understanding. Communicating in ways that are disrespectful and driven by an intent to insult others, does more harm than good. If our objective is to speak the truth and persuade others based on sound reasoning and thinking, then we should feel obligated to do so with decency. That was the American way.

How did George Washington, in 1776, convince his soldiers, who were mentally and physically worn out, to continue fighting for America’s independence despite their military contract being fulfilled, and them having every right to go home? How did Booker T. Washington convince one of the richest men in America during his time, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., to financially support his idea to build schools for Black Americans in the south? I would argue that it wasn’t just the character of George Washington and Booker T. Washington, but it was also their ability to engage and persuade others through civil discourse.

Civil discourse has died and it’s death is so apparent in our culture. Civility and decency have been replaced with disrespect and indecency. I am guilty of contributing to its death in more ways than one, but I am committed to resurrecting civil discourse. I believe that all human beings are created in the image of God and THAT truth should cause me to treat every human being with respect even when engaging in debate where their views differ from mine.  My faith compels me to speak the truth in love and that doesn’t mean that my conversations will lack passion or that I must communicate in a mouse-like tone. But rather, it will combine my love for God and truth, with a love for others, and a desire to see all human beings flourish.

“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” Proverbs 16:23



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