Don't stop disagreeing — politely

The University of Arizona announced Monday that it is establishing an institute devoted entirely to the promotion of civility. As an institution already devoted to promoting civility, The Dallas Morning News extends a welcome to all who embrace the cause.

There's no coincidence that Tucson is the venue for the new National Institute for Civil Discourse. That's where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured by a gunman in January. Six were killed and 13 others injured. This tragedy, which should have united the nation in grief, instead provoked harsh recriminations about who was to blame.

Some noted the circulation of campaign literature listing Democratic candidates deemed vulnerable in the November elections — including Giffords — each overlaid with a set of crosshairs. There was bitterness about the issue of gun control. So much about those difficult days boosted the volume of vitriol and accented our nation's deepest divisions.

Long before the Arizona shootings, the Dallas Morning News had joined others in pleading for a concerted effort on all sides to restore an air of measured restraint as Americans debate the problems confronting our nation and world. This was never a call to stop disagreeing. These opinion pages are all about debate. Rather, we sought an end to the kinds of maliciousness and use of deliberately distorted "facts" that are reshaping the tone of dialogue, particularly in the blogosphere.

Isolated voices in the wilderness calling for civility simply won't cut it. This nation needs an institute — perhaps several — whose sole mission is to remind us of what's at stake when we allow anger to substitute for logic and reason in public discourse.

Some have reacted cynically to the idea of an institute devoted to civility. Why do we need it? Isn't this just a bit too ... touchy-feely for a country that has a long and celebrated political history of grappling in the mud?

"This sounds like so many things related to Washington: good intentions mixed with ready cash, an instinct that a reasonable response to any event is establishing some new organization, and notables' desire to seem concerned. ... Call me a pessimistic realist, but I'm not sure more workshops are really going to help," writes Stephen Stromberg of The Washington Post.

We respectfully disagree, with strong emphasis on the word "respectfully." Look no further than last week's Dallas County Commissioners Court meeting (just Google "go to hell" and "mullah"), followed by the blatant censorship imposed at this week's county meeting, to understand the slippery slope that lies ahead if Americans continue to ignore the warning signs of incivility.

Democracy thrives when citizens openly debate their differences and work toward a common solution. It erodes when insults and innuendo make communication impossible. That's where Arizona's institute can make a difference.

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