Civility, by and for the people

Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln taken by Matthew Brady.
Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln taken by Matthew Brady.
Posted: February 12, 2013

By Myles Martel

Today, we pause to remember the birth of President Abraham Lincoln and, later this year, on Nov. 19, the nation will commemorate the 150th anniversary of his Gettysburg Address. This two-minute oration, consisting of less than 300 words, is widely regarded as the greatest speech in American history. Scholars from several disciplines, including history, literature and speech communication, have written extensively and perceptively about Lincoln's tribute to the 50,000 Union and Confederate troops who were killed or wounded at Gettysburg. It was the bloodiest engagement of the four-year Civil War.

Calling the war "civil" registers a contradictory ring, for little about it was, as the word connotes, mannerly or polite. Yet Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered six months past the war's midpoint, is destined to endure as a peerless example of civil discourse. It was devoid of bitter, polarizing rhetoric, and was, instead, infused with humility, respect, common ground, and conciliation, while extolling themes based on freedom, bravery, sacrifice, dedication, and our nation's purpose.

A thoughtful appreciation of Lincoln's address beckons us to reflect soberly on the assault on civility being waged in the public arena today. Consider the unhealthy examples set by prominent television and radio personalities and their guests. They interrupt and shout at each other, often encouraged to do so by network executives armed with market-research data substantiating the viewing audience's appetite for acrimony. Or consider the senseless, heart-wrenching personal slurs brandished by teenagers with unbridled access to social media - uncivil discourse traveling at "viral" speed and reach to ruin reputations and even influence suicides.

Myriad factors fuel uncivil discourse, including anger, laziness, a proclivity for conflict, personal insecurity, poor listening skills, and the inability to reason, discuss, and argue well.

To flourish, a democracy must rely on rigorous discussion and debate that include freedom of expression for all points of view. Yet deliberations in a healthy democracy must be rooted in a climate of mutual respect and integrity, where words and tone matter.

Reflecting upon this appreciation of and necessity for civil discourse, the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has created a Center for Civil Discourse to "examine the challenges that democracy and human nature bring to bear in the search for reasoned political discourse and common ground in our public institutions." In addition, numerous educational, religious, and governmental entities have established programs, curricula, and guidelines for encouraging civil discourse, including listening, showing respect for others, avoiding dismissive labels and personal attacks, and expressing a commitment to accuracy, honesty, and common ground.

Throughout my career, I have been privileged to advise business leaders and public officials who share an appreciation for the power of the spoken word. Many have aimed to chart their own leadership course by emulating the words and actions of Lincoln. Their desire for students to benefit from Lincoln's example helped inspire the creation of the "In Lincoln's Footsteps" speech contest.

This contest, open to all Pennsylvania high school students, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and the values it represents. Entrants are asked to compose a 270-word contemporary version of Lincoln's address. The winner will receive a $5,000 scholarship and the honor of delivering the speech in Gettysburg during the official Dedication Day ceremonies on Nov. 19.

The judges of the contest and I look forward to reading the insights of today's students expressed through modern-day civil discourse, including how they convey their appreciation for preserving a government "of the people, by the people, for the people." For in their heads, hearts, voices, and pens - and, yes, keyboards - resides the future of a civil society.


Myles Martel is president and CEO of Martel and Associates and chair of the contest to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, www.inlincolnsfootsteps.com.

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