By Angela Andrews and Natalie Wood
We are living in unprecedented times. No, correction. We are living in unprecedented and tumultuous times.
The COVID-19 crisis has upended almost every facet of life and brought suffering to tens of thousands in the United States and millions around the world. The death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement has once again put America’s focus on policing and issues of racial justice. In addition, economic pressures are causing tremendous stress for people from all walks of life.
Many of these issues take on partisan and ideological dimensions in these hyper-polarized times. Conversations with family, friends and colleagues are too often fragile. Expressing an opinion can lead to heated opposition and broken relationships. Civility, or civil discourse, the act of engaging in dialogue to discuss differences and values, may feel forgotten during these times. It is not.
As the Kansas House of Representatives prepared to end its special session last week, two legislators: one Democrat, one Republican; one black, one white; one from academia, one from law enforcement, showed that civility remains an important ideal and that legislatures can be the perfect forum to start challenging conversations.
In this video, Kansas Representative Eric Smith (R) and Representative Barbara Ballard (D) share their thoughts following the events of the past week. They call for civility and for members, and all Kansans, to listen to each other and learn about each other in a spirit of love and respect.
It is a perfect demonstration of civil discourse in action. The floor of the House was completely silent as the two spoke, and for good reason. We should all listen.
Civility is how we treat and care for others. It’s about trust. It’s about respect. It’s about seeking to understand other people's viewpoints and values without attacking them. Legislatures, deliberative and bipartisan bodies that are the voice of the people, are institutions where civility must endure and be the absolute norm.
Angela Andrews directs NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program and has authored a few articles on the topic of civility.
Natalie Wood directs NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening and leads NCSL’s research about decorum and civility in legislatures.