In 1895, my grandfather, then 17, made his way from the small mountain town of Aitou, Lebanon, all the way to Peoria, Illinois. It has been over 115 years since he began that long journey, and since then the LaHood family has fixed its roots firmly in American soil. But it is still a pleasure to return to Lebanon the land that instilled its strong values--faith, hard work, responsibility--in my grandfather.
And two weeks ago, it was a particular pleasure to visit Lebanon and address the graduating class of 2010 at Holy Spirit University of Kasilik. The Holy Spirit University is an institution my grandfather would be proud of--it seeks to graduate leaders who "assume full responsibility for the consequences of their actions."
One aspect of its mission is particularly dear to me: "Building a society where tolerant individuals revere freedom of expression and thought, and cooperate regardless of divisive constraints. Building a community where respecting others and their beliefs prevails."
Now, it's no secret that I dislike the bitter intolerance that has developed in American political culture. I've blogged about it here; I've discouraged it on my Facebook page; and I've worked against it throughout my career. But, as relevant as Holy Spirit University's emphasis on respecting others may seem to American politics, it is absolutely crucial preparation for students in Lebanon, a republic built on the fault lines of Middle East politics.
So I spoke to the class of 2010 about one of the qualities that has helped the US maintain our democracy for 234 years--civility.
I’ve been involved in politics for much of my professional life. And I know that good people disagree on how to face educational, social, economic, and environmental challenges. That's okay, because serious debate--a vigorous back and forth--is a sign of healthy political institutions.
But when policy disputes slip into partisan--and personal--acrimony, we close the door to deliberation and compromise. When we speak in terms of defiant absolutes, we lose the ability to have any impact but obstruction. When we attack each other’s motives instead of contesting each other’s ideas, we poison the atmosphere for negotiating. And, worse, we make it impossible to learn from one another.
Believe me, I know that opponents can sometimes be infuriating. That's the real test of civic maturity: to respect adversaries whose words make your blood boil without belittling them personally. To respect someone you agree with--that's no great challenge. To respect those who advocate the very thing that you would spend a lifetime opposing--that's something.
And it is precisely in situations where we differ the most that the stakes are highest, and we most need to practice civility.
I accepted President Obama’s invitation to join his Democratic administration because I knew bipartisanship is in the President’s DNA. But I only knew that because I made the effort to learn it while we were in Congress together, even though we were on opposite sides of the aisle. I took the job because I wanted to be one voice in a rising choir that says our challenges are too big to get mired in the smallness of politics.
Civility means knowing that raising the level of your voice doesn’t raise the level of discussion. It means being principled without being prejudiced. It means making your case without making a scene, or worse, an enemy.
It means asking yourself, "Am I taking responsibility here? Am I going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?"
Whether you're in Congress, the Cabinet, or a Middle East republic, making enemies creates far more problems than it solves.
In a part of the world where disagreements too often lead to bloodshed, civility is a valuable quality. And I urged the Holy Spirit University graduating class of 2010 to practice it faithfully. But America faces its own challenges, and I see no reason to believe that civility is less valuable here.