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Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.
As the calendar starts anew, so we seek to begin again. We make resolutions by which we can mitigate our vices and cultivate virtues either new or in need of renewal.
For our citizenship, we can find no better advice than that given by the father of our country, President George Washington. We have, in his own handwriting, a collection of more than 100 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation.” Similar lists originated well before Washington and were popular as part of young people’s education in the Colonies.
Washington copied these rules as a teenager. Yet more than copying on paper, Washington took these rules to mind and to heart. Charles Moore, in an introduction to a 1926 publication of the list, noted: “These maxims were so fully exemplified in George Washington’s life that biographers have regarded them as formative influences in the development of his character.”
Some of his advice might not be easily translatable to our own interactions. We might not need to know to “spit not in the fire,” for instance. Others, however, distill truths that remain invaluable for our current political discourse.
For one, Washington copied the counsel, “Be no flatterer.” To be sure, while flattery is no stranger to politics, it has increasingly become one of the grossest elements of our present moment. We see demagogues tell the masses whatever they seem to wish to hear. We witness others striving for power by tickling the ears of the most influential among us, praising them regardless of merit. And we see the tendency to conform to trendy opinion regardless of truth — itself a kind of flattery.
For another, Washington learned to “[show] not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.” As we flatter those we want as our friends or supporters, so we often display loathing of perceived foes. Our discourse has become so rancorous that many use the personal tragedies of opponents as fodder for mockery.
Along similar lines, Washington’s rules advise: “When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased; but always [show] pity to the suffering offender.” This perspective seeks to maintain the needed line between vengeance and authentic justice. The government should seek right but to do so calmly, deliberately and dispassionately. We have due process for defendants for this reason.
Washington also copied various counsels to respect both our equals and elders, whether that be in age or status. Especially in our online discourse, we hardly respect anyone. We must regain that decorum that sees the dignity in all.
One in his list says: “Undertake not to teach your equal in the art himself professes; it flavours of arrogancy.” Yet we tend to become immediate experts on whatever social or political matter about which everyone is commenting. This point can take a particularly personal turn as well. Instead of writing articles on how to argue with our parents, uncles or grandparents at holiday gatherings, we might consider how we can learn from them again.
Moreover, we learn from these rules when and how to speak about political matters in the advice, “In all causes of passion admit reason govern.” Our politics often lets passion rule and calls doing so courageous. But such a response really shows a lack of self-government. Along these lines, Washington copied, “Use no reproachful language against anyone neither curse nor revile.” That advice does not mean we should avoid stating our opinion and doing so forcefully.
These points also remind us of the link between argument and life. We should not critique an argument on which we, too, are blameworthy — “for example is more prevalent than precepts.” Also, in not cursing or reviling, we shouldn’t let our political discourse descend into the equivalent of tabloid gossip. “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any,” including political foes.
Washington’s last rule provided a fitting ending to the characteristics displayed in the preceding list: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire call conscience.” We should make the same commitment.
We must not let the worst passions, words and actions define us as individuals and as a people. In cultivating our conscience, we maintain our dedication to justice, to truth — and, yes — to civility.