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From Enmity to Comity: Restoring Civility and Pride to American Life

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Let's stop hurting each other. You go first.
- Alta

The Twentieth Century saw many nations consumed by their own enmity. Hatred is inflammatory, and it has now reached a level where to stoke it, from either the Left or the Right, is incendiary. Beyond a certain level, public hatred sours personal relationships. In societies such as prewar Spain, wartime Germany, Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s, Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, hatred in the public sphere had catastrophic consequences in the private.

There are worrisome signs that comity is losing ground to enmity in America. As enmity displaces comity, pride suffers from disunity.

Recently, hatred showed its face in the vituperation unleashed by President Obama's Nobel Prize. Not only did the president's detractors seize the opportunity to revile him; they derided anyone who did not share their contempt. Both the president and those who supported the award were casually compared with the most villainous figures of the twentieth century.

This piece is not about Obama-hatred. The response to his Nobel is merely another sign that hate is out of hand. President Bush was also compared to Hitler and Stalin. Before that, the Clintons were execrated. No one party has a monopoly on malice.

Calls for civility have not worked, either with the public or the partisan commentators who model disdain and contempt for their followers. Why is hate resonating with the American public?

Though its cause appears to lie outside ourselves, hate has a secret accomplice within. Its name is Fear. "Hate is the consequence of fear," Cyril Connolly notes. "We fear something before we hate it."

Anger congeals to hate when people fear domination and experience the indignity of being discounted. No one, conservative or progressive, likes being taken for a nobody. Hatred takes root when fears remain unaddressed and dignity is disregarded. Imagined indignities can feel as injurious as real ones, and suffice to incite people to commit mayhem and murder.

What's needed to initiate the winding down of enmity is for at least one party to the recriminations to stop returning indignity in kind and start allaying the fears of its opposite number. This means talking over the heads of media demagogues straight to those whose fears have left them vulnerable to hate-mongers. The epigram notwithstanding, it does not put one side at a disadvantage to "go first" in extending the olive branch. Then, it must be willing to meet indignity with dignity, for however long it takes, while not subtly compromising the process by taking pride in its own forbearance. Maintaining civility doesn't mean giving in to others' demands, but it does mean dealing with them respectfully.

With even a modest diminution of fear, we re-conceive our enemies as adversaries. With a hint of mutual value, adversaries become rivals--a term acknowledging each party's role as a teacher of the other. Finally, by recognizing their mutual dependency, rivals begin to see themselves as partners. By this time, comity has replaced enmity, and incivility is out of fashion.

A second line of defense against hatred is to recognize that when real indignities do occur -- and they are inevitable -- a flash of righteous anger or a sharp verbal riposte preempts the slow burn of hate. As fear subsides, and we gain confidence to protest against the indignities that befall us and apologize for those we ourselves commit, we deny hate the hothouse required for its gestation.

As we remove hate from the public discourse -- either by eliminating the causes of indignity or by restoring agency to indignity's victims -- we give comity a chance. Nothing we could do, at home or abroad, would do more to enhance our safety than putting the "We" back in "We the people."