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Former ambassador Roemer defines ‘civility’

| Monday, November 17, 2014

On Friday afternoon in the Hesburgh Center auditorium, former Congressman and ambassador to India Timothy Roemer spoke about the current state of political discourse in a talk entitled “Civility in the Public Square: A Strong Leadership Principle.”

Roemer, a South Bend native with masters and doctorate degrees from Notre Dame, began by explaining how he defines civility and how the public often misperceives it.

“There’s a perception that civil people are afraid to speak their minds and stand on their principles,” Roemer said. “I couldn’t disagree more.

“Civility is not the same thing as compromise. It’s treating your opponents with a measure of respect.”

Quoting President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Roemer reminded the audience “civility is not a sign of weakness.”

Roemer then listed strong historical leaders who embodied civility. He said the efforts President Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant made to treat the South with respect after the Civil War showed the tremendous power of civility. He also said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified the same virtue in his actions of peace and restraint toward those who viciously attacked him.

Roemer said the current lack of civility in public discourse stems from a few factors. The first, Roemer said, is “political apathy and indifference,” shown by record-low voter turnout and overall decreasing participation in the democratic process. Roemer said this allows more extreme voices on both sides of the spectrum to gain power while moderate voters stay home on Election Day. Voter disenchantment with political polarization fuels even lower voter turnout and the vicious cycle perpetuates itself.

“No one is going to come along and make politics work for you,” he said.

The influence of “big money” also leads increased incivility, Roemer said. After the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court decision, the “the price of reaching voters skyrocketed,” he said. Roemer noted that the cost of an average Congressional campaign today is 300 percent greater than it was in 1990.

Roemer said the media also contributes to the brutal political discourse.

“Outlets like Fox News and MSNBC need to have a pre-packaged cast of good guys versus bad guys in order to attract viewers,” he said.

Addressing the power of newer forms of media, Roemer said “people are able to say things online they would never dream of doing in person.”

Roemer concluded with a few more examples of civility he sees in the world today, including Malala Yousafzai, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy for educational rights of women in the face of violent oppression, the democratic protesters in Hong Kong, who take great pains to clean up after themselves while being attacked by the police, and Pope Francis, who has spread the message of the Church effectively without changing fundamental doctrine.

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