I n a democracy, civility is not optional. The reason is simple. Democracy describes the process of self-government. It calls for all members of the group to be equally represented in the making of collaborative decisions.
Civility is critical to the democratic process, because it protects the conditions under which we can make decisions for ourselves. Without civility, we are unable to do the complex thinking that our democracy demands.
Maintaining civility is a shared responsibility..and an ongoing challenge. As a rule, we are quick to make judgments about people but slow to understand them. If our democratic process is to work, we must somehow overcome this tendency. Democracy demands an atmosphere of mutual respect. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the framers of our Constitution spent their first hours meeting in Philadelphia and setting the rules of civility that would govern their deliberations.
As Carol Berkin writes in A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution:
Taking into account the presence of loquacious and combative personalities among the delegates, the Convention wisely agreed that no one should be allowed to speak more than twice on any issue each time it was raised. And when a member behaved badly, he could be ‘called to order by any other member, as well as by the President; and may be allowed to explain his conduct or expressions supposed to be reprehensible.
There were other rules as well, such as, “Whilst a member shall be speaking…[N]one shall pass between them, or hold discourse with another, or read a book, pamphlet or paper, printed or manuscript…”
James Madison carefully recorded these rules in his notes. As Belkin comments in her book, “This concern with creating an open and safe atmosphere for discussion ran like a leitmotiv throughout the early days of the convention.”