NEH Chairman: Bring Back Respect and Compromise to Politics and Public Speech

March 18, 2011 — James Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, told a University of Virginia audience he is worried that today's uncivil behavior and speech is breaking down the concept of the public square – and the American political system.

"It's not the first time, or the worst time, but it maybe the most irrational time of political violence," he said. It is reasonable to ask if the survival of humanity is in jeopardy should the present incivility prevail, he said.

Leach called for a renewal of what might be considered old-fashioned concepts of honor, love and respect.

His March 16 speech in the Rotunda was part of the just-concluded Virginia Festival of the Book, organized by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Leach began his four-year term as NEH chairman in August 2009. Last week's visit was one stop in the tour he is making of the country's colleges and universities, giving a lecture on "Civility in a Fractured Society."

A Republican U.S. representative from Iowa for 30 years until 2007, Leach said that when he served, all of the congressmen felt they were part of the political process. "One would support what made sense," he said.

Democrats and Republicans used to compromise and move toward the center politically when making governing decisions, but this practice has increasingly broken down in the national political system – and the same thing is starting to happen on the state level, too, he said.

At least part of the reason for this shift has come in response to the extreme views coming from politically extreme citizens. Politicians have responded to this dissension in American society by also using discordant rhetoric, he said.

Leach has noticed that people's uncivil, irrational rhetoric is also inaccurate sometimes. He said he had heard President Obama called both "fascist" and "communist" by the same person, clearly indicating the person didn't know the difference.

"Words reflect emotion, as well as meaning. They can clarify or cloud thought," he said.

Uncivil behavior and speech tries to drown out someone else's view, whereas civil argumentation features spirited talk, but the parties listen to each other and respect each other, he said.

"Even with different views," Leach said, "we have a common identity as Americans. We all have something to learn from someone else."

He also decried the use of war-like metaphors and words, saying they add violent implications. The Greeks distinguished between rivals and enemies, he said. For rivals, there were a set of regulations, a structure of power and order to behavior, and even friendship was part of it. Enemies were considered outside the polis or city-state, giving them no common ground.

Leach, who is on leave from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, gave "two-minute survey courses" on other topics that illustrated perspectives of humanities disciplines, from political science to philosophy, and went beyond to "Reality 101."

In "Political Science 101," he said the founders misjudged one thing about the American legislature: Congress is supposed to be reflective of the population, but today there are some groups overrepresented, and they are becoming unwilling to compromise, he said, without pointing fingers.

Instead of having a guiding philosophy and abstract ideals, politicians cater to moneyed interest groups, he said. At the same time, political issues are often labeled moral issues now, and taking sides prevents compromise, he said, because if the other side is immoral, you're giving up on your morals if you compromise. News sources try to widen their audiences and appeal to viewers by taking a conservative or liberal slant.

The changes in communication and the ways the American public gets news have caused the situation where people can choose only the news they want to hear. It's creating a new social divide between people who choose only to look at the political views they agree with, instead of people taking in a range of views that are more balanced.

Speaking in the Rotunda, Leach said, reminded him of one of Thomas Jefferson's many areas of scholarship, including his being the first student in the U.S. of comparative religions. After studying the world's major religions, Jefferson concluded that what was most important was finding the places where the ideas of different faiths conjoined.

"Wouldn't it be good if everyone concluded the same thing?" Leach said.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications