Editorial: Leading a double life

There’s a canyon between us, and between our public and private lives

You only live twice, or so it seems

 

One life for yourself, and one for your dreams …”

The title of the James Bond film You Only Live Twice was obviously meant to be ironic. You don’t really live twice.

Or do you? It could be argued that you do: one life for yourself and one for those around you.

We more or less lead two lives: our private life and our public life.

Our private life is, obviously, all about ourselves and our loved ones. Our public life is about everyone and everything else: our neighbors, our communities, our country and our world.

These distinctions may seem trite and self-evident – except when you consider how we’re doing in each of our two lives.

For most of us, our private lives couldn’t be more fulfilling. We’re surrounded by love – and not just among our family and friends: most of our encounters with strangers are polite and cordial, even filled with warmth.

Then we get online. Or on the phone. Or on the TV or radio. And we watch and listen to -- and comment about -- our leaders and other talking heads. And all the civility that fills our private lives is suddenly out the window.

We yell. We call names. We assume the absolute worst in each other. We impugn each other’s motives and intents.

The three most uncivil places in the country are online, on cable and on Capitol Hill.

How can our public lives be so extraordinarily different from our private lives? What are we thinking? And what can we do about it?

This page has repeatedly called for more civility in public life. And we realize we’re not alone: There’s a ton of folks and organizations coming to the fore to do the same.

In calling for civility, Chronicle letter writer Nathan Jolles on Feb. 1 noted there’s no better example of it than the unlikely, yet deep friendship between far-left liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late far-right conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

In separate remarks recently, Ginsburg and Scalia’s replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, also extolled the beauty of – and urgent need for – civility in American public life.

“Someday, I hope we will get back to the way it was,” Ginsburg said in a speech at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island. “I think it will take great leaders on both sides of the aisle to say, ‘Let’s stop this nonsense and start working for the country the way we should.’”

“To preserve our civil liberties, we have to work on being civil with one another,” Gorsuch told a crowd at Stockton University. “It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable … For us, civics education isn’t just an ideal; it’s indispensable. The founders gave us a republic, but it’s for each generation to keep it.”

They’re both absolutely right. Civility is important enough that the future of the republic depends on it. We are, after all, a nation not bound by ethnicity but by ethic: It’s our ideas of liberty and the rule of law and self-determination that form the glue of America. If we can’t even discuss matters without getting at each other’s throats, how can we possibly keep this thing together?

How did we get here to begin with? A number of reasons.

We are more wired than ever and, it seems, less connected. It’s so easy to be uncivil when there’s a keyboard between us. It’s seductive to forget there’s a human being on the other side of that online comment. It’s perversely comforting to be calling others out from the internet’s cloak of invisibility.

We are drawn to conflict like passersby to a car accident – and cable outlets have learned how to make loads of money from that conflict. It’s the Discord Dividend.

Meanwhile, there’s a reason Congress hasn’t formally declared war since World War II: There’s already a constant state of war in Washington, D.C., where careerist politicians whose eyes never stray from the next election don’t negotiate policy so much as jockey for position.

And let’s be honest: family breakdown and growing coarseness in our culture have led to creatures more susceptible to incivility.

Contrary to what we’ve long been told, the customer isn’t always right.

Our leaders in government and the media need to consciously choose civility – even if it costs them money or elections.

And we all need our public lives to be more like our private ones.

 

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Rick McKee Editorial Cartoon