Assume time travel is real, just for a moment.
A kid from small-town, 1960s Indiana gets transported to 2016. He’s sitting in a 21st-century living room, freaked out to see a grownup and two children staring at shiny black rectangles in their palms, while another adult points a bigger gray rectangle with buttons at a flat television, switching through dozens of channels before finally settling on cable news.
The weird, entrancing devices aren’t the biggest shock, though. Instead, the youngster’s eyes pop when he hears the words shouted by a guy at some “rally” showing on that skinny TV set. The kid realizes he and his buddies would get their mouths washed out with soap if they repeated that language. He gulps and musters the courage to ask the people in the living room, “Who is that?”
One adult taps his black rectangle a couple times, looks up and says, “The next president of the United States.”
The boy is now dumbfounded.
Yes, civility — speaking with respect and some courtesy — has faded during the 2016 election cycle. In fact, that style of behavior has been belittled as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wages a say-whatever-comes-to-mind campaign against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Recently, the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods signed a letter that includes signatures from 5,600 sisters in the Catholic church in the U.S. The larger group — the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) — sent copies of the letter to Trump, Clinton, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, as well as the vice presidential nominees and the chairpersons of the national political parties. The sisters asked the politicians to show civility.
They’re not asking for the candidates to sugarcoat reality. That’s not what civility means.
“We need courageous leaders willing to speak the truth,” the letter reads. “We simply ask that all who seek to lead refrain from language that disrespects, dehumanizes or demonizes another.”
It adds, “Unfortunately, we live in a time when our politics is too often marked by self-interest and demeaning rhetoric. We seem to be caught in a political system paralyzed by ideological extremism and hyper-partisanship. Those on all sides of the growing political divide too often appeal to our basest instincts and stoke the fires of fear that tear at the fabric of our nation.”
The sisters’ call probably comes too late for this campaign season. The incivility got unleashed last year as Trump mocked and blustered his way past 16 Republican opponents for the nomination and then forged ahead to face the winner of the Clinton-Bernie Sanders race for the Democratic nomination. Attempts by his own party to moderate Trump’s tongue and tactics haven’t worked. Changing style isn’t in his plans, as he reaffirmed last week. Thus, the tone of the campaign will undoubtedly continue.
Still, the sisters’ plea may matter most after Election Day on Nov. 8, once the dust settles and the damage from pitting groups of Americans against one another becomes more visible. The nation may expect more meaningful, less divisive, less personal dialogue from potential public officeholders.
Young adults, millennials, may lead the country toward civility. “They seem more open-minded,” said Sister Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the Sisters of Providence congregation near West Terre Haute. The biases of elder Americans often aren’t so entrenched in younger generations.
“They don’t know any other world except the world of equality and acceptance,” she added.
Let’s hope young Americans keep that outlook and speak and behave accordingly. The future will be better, as a result. After all, a time-traveling kid from the 1960s to the present should be awestruck by our smartphones, iPads, Google, HD TVs, hundreds of channels and Netflix and not by our mean words.
Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star.