The Marketplace of IdeasInterestingly, Holmes first articulated that concept in his famous dissent in United States v. Abrams (1919) in defense of a group of anarchists convicted under the Espionage Act. “If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart,” Holmes explained, “you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition. . . . But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths,” he concluded, “they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.”While Holmes wrote eloquently in defense of free expression, even in wartime, he never suggested that such discourse had to be uncivil. In fact, incivility and a lack of reason in political discourse helped to fuel the Civil War, in which Holmes fought on the side of Union. As Civil War historian, C. Vann Woodward conceptualized the decade leading up to the war, “In the course of the crisis each antagonist, according to the immemorial pattern had become convinced of the depravity and evilness of the other. Each believed itself persecuted, menaced . . . paranoia continued to induce counter paranoia, each antagonist infecting the other reciprocally, until the vicious spiral ended in war.” Rather than a deviation, the ugly turn in American political discourse in recent years may be more consistent with our past than we would like to imagine. As historian Geoffrey C. Ward explained, “Our ancestors seem to have liked nothing better than vitriolic, abusive, intensely personal politics. Even the greatest statesmen delighted in it.” The spread of new technology from the radio, to television, to the Internet has simply made the rancor more accessible and allowed people to partake singularly in the politics of their choice in essence circumventing the marketplace of ideas. In recent years, the immemorial pattern described by Woodward seems to be augmenting what Richard Hofstadter aptly called the paranoid style of American politics. Political discourse in America has become a one-sided conversation fueled by technology that allows the individual to drown out all other points of view but their own, helping to erode respect for even the highest of elective office, the presidency. This certainly was not the intent of the nation’s founders.Influenced by the heady ideas of the Enlightenment that celebrated reasoned discourse, the Founders envisioned a republic in which there could be impassioned debate on issues free from prior restraint. They also were keenly aware of the rancor of public discourse on matters of politics. They nevertheless insisted on free speech as a safeguard against tyranny.Today, if we are able to show the marks of our progress, then political discourse should be reflective of a society that has proved in blood its respect for the free exchange of ideas without the instruments of violence and the language of hate. Even as it demands greater sacrifice from all of us to think about the ways in which controversial ideas and disagreements might be expressed—in honor of that sacrifice— with truthfulness and respect.“Integrity,” President Harry Truman once commented, paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, “is what happens when nobody is watching.” If that sage wisdom remains true, then civility aptly describes what happens when everyone is watching.In 2009, for instance, in what he later described as an act of spontaneous indiscretion, South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson interrupted President Barack Obama’s delivery of a special health care address to the nation by shouting, “You lie!” While Wilson later apologized, South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn nevertheless hit on the crux of the problem. “I was always taught that the first sign of a good education is good manners,” Clyburn explained shortly after the incident. “I think that what we saw tonight was really bad manners.”For history and social studies educators, Joe Wilson’s outburst, at the very least, warrants an examination of the principles of proper decorum balanced with the right of free speech. While the right of free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment has become an essential feature of American democracy, should we concern ourselves solely with its legal limits without taking stock of its moral and ethical considerations, as well?While prohibiting the government from enacting measures to restrain free speech, it is nevertheless clear that the Founders also expected that individuals would not only be responsible, but accountable for their words and actions as caretakers of American democracy. As Benjamin Franklin memorably responded to the inquiry of what form of government the United States was going to have as he exited the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin’s words convey the deep level of personal responsibility Americans share as custodians of American democracy, of which civility is an important ingredient. It is not a stretch to presume that they also imagined such discourse would be respectful in line with the customs of the day. “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy,” rule number 58 of George Washington’s translation of the Rules of Conduct dutifully advised, “for ‘tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.”
Accountability Is CriticalRepresentative Wilson violated the rules of etiquette established by his own party when he heckled the President. House Republican procedures identify seven categories of unparliamentary speech, which all members should avoid. All in some meaningful way touch on common courtesy, one of the cornerstones of civility. What the rules demonstrate collectively is the expectation of respect by each member not only for the body, but also for one another. It is an investment that is not possible without respect for some basic rules and decorum.
- Defaming or degrading the House
- Criticism of the Speaker’s personal conduct
- Impugning the motives of another member
- Charging falsehood or deception
- Claiming lack of intelligence or knowledge
- References to race, creed, or prejudice
- Charges related to loyalty or patriotism
Yohuru Williams is Chair of the History Department and Director of Black Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He is the author ofBlack Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Black Panthers in New Haven and Teaching U.S. History Beyond the Textbook.