June 2024


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Friday, June 21, 2024

Why Civility Matters


By: Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson

I’m getting to the age where I can look back on several decades of public service and talk about the “good old days.” Old lawmakers love to talk about what the legislature used to be like when they served. A favorite topic is the lack of civility in today’s government and public discourse. While the lack of civility certainly isn’t new, we ought to be concerned about it today because it hampers progress on difficult issues and has a chilling effect on free speech itself.

Lack of civility is apparent everywhere in public life today. Extreme personal partisan attacks bring gridlock to the Federal Government in Washington. City Councils across the nation become shouting matches and sometimes worse. Commissions and Councils call in the police to protect them from unruly citizens engaging in public comment. Even here in Larimer County, our city councils have had to take these measures, and our Board of County Commissioners this week put in place a new code of civility for public comment at our meetings. We do so not to restrict citizen input, but to encourage it.

Free speech is essential to our republic and our liberty. The great American statesman Daniel Webster once said if he had to give up all of his freedoms except one, he would keep freedom of speech, because with it he could win back all the others.

Civility is the friend of free speech, not its enemy. Without civility, discourse descends into barbarism, threatening to squelch other voices. Civility increases both the quality and quantity of free speech. Democracy thrives when a diversity of voices are expressed, respected, considered and weighed in public deliberation. Civility does not mean we should not challenge ideas, our government or its elected officials. It gives us a way to do so more effectively.

Nor does civility mean the exclusion of passion. Injustice, poverty, discrimination, violence, abuse, and other social and political ills should evoke strong emotion and strong words of condemnation. Civility is not censorship of expression or an opiate to calm indignation. It is more of a restriction on how we express those ideas. Passion is important in public discourse. Without it we are left with apathy.

Civility is exercised through practice, built in small steps. It is difficult. None of us, especially this author, are perfect in its application. But we can all benefit from a periodic reminder of its importance.

Recently I had the very moving experience visiting Ellis Island in New York, through which most immigrants arrived in America. These men, women and children left everything- their home, possessions, sometimes even their families for an unknown land but a very real hope – a promise of freedom and a better life. I’ve thought a lot since then about how I take those freedoms and this land for granted. This freedom is our inheritance and our legacy. Are we leaving a better legacy than our inheritance?

Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson represents District 2 and has served since 2009.

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