Can debate get heated with no loss of cool?

It is possible for people to debate one another on the issues that matter, and be 'playfully polite.'

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Republican Chris McDonough (l.) and democrat Robert O’Brien talked politics at a Feb. 11 caucus in Portland, Maine.

So what happens when a culture pushes down hard on the low end of civility's acceptable range?

Well, discourse devolves, as Mary Beth McCauley reports in our cover story this week. But the story's not that simple or that dark. It might be tempting to think of civility as belonging to a fustier era, before personal tech gave rise to disconnected thumb-typists and self-promoters. But there are plenty of small examples of new-school nice.

You may have seen the YouTube video of a young guitar player singing his complicated fast-food order at a Sonic drive-through. He's pranking the order-taker, who's never seen in the video – but he's so playfully polite, so cheerfully civil, that she ends up sounding charmed.

Even the cold-edged side of civility calls for a little performance art. Never mind "Downton Abbey." Consider modern-day British parliamentarians, seasoning their most pointed debates with repeated deference to their "right honourable" opponents.

Civility ought to come naturally to those in the political theater. They're social dancers by trade. And there have been good ones close to home. On his show, "Firing Line," the late conservative lion William F. Buckley Jr. used to sit slightly slouched, lick his lips, and courteously skewer whomever he was debating – often with a piquant reminder of his guest's own self-contradictory words.

A deeply felt reaction can be temperate and still have bite. Discussing Iraq strategy during one of the 2004 presidential debates, candidate John Kerry deployed a line that recognized the depth of his opponent's assuredness, even as it cast the incumbent as being misguided: "It's one thing to be certain," the senator said, "but you can be certain and you can be wrong."

So why does so much of today's political rhetoric sound so … impolitic? So charmless and uncivil?

Angry declarations – "Liar!" – tend to play better than nuanced explanations. And in the age of message overload, speed-to-market matters.

Even so, a politician who wags an index finger in the face of the president near a bank of digital cameras can create controversy and instant iconography – but perhaps not very much more.

A couple of weeks ago, an event called "Civility and American Democracy: A National Forum" was held at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston (UMB). After the event I called Steve Crosby, the school's dean and one of the forum's chief organizers.

"The problem is, what's missing is discourse, civil or otherwise," Dean Crosby told me. "We can't get people to sit down and talk about issues." There are ready solutions, Crosby said. But those tend to be drowned out by the dissonance of polarized viewpoints, tightly held and stubbornly restated. Over and over.

This is not new. In politics "there has been gross incivility forever," Crosby said. But now, he said, the relentless intensity of social media means that getting attention calls for taking harder lines – and using language that stands out mainly because it sears.

"I think you see the cynicism of the political system," he said, "this leaping on the slightest misstatement and twisting…. The fringes of the two parties hold their members accountable to extreme positions with no room for compromise."

UMB's new Center for Civil Discourse, Crosby said, aims to become an environment in which citizens, academics, and advocates – including politicians – can put the focus back on finding workable ways forward. Some of this is undoubtedly kindergarten stuff: Take turns. Listen actively. Avoid name-calling.

The current issue of Monocle, the world-affairs magazine, explores whether "charm" might be "the next offensive" in international politics and business. That sounds promising. Any (civil) arguments?

• Clayton Collins is the editor of the weekly edition. Monitor editor John Yemma returns to this space next week.

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