Civility Project: How to disagree without being disagreeable

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ATLANTA— A Republican and a Democrat walk into a bar—a coffee bar, that is. That's the plan, anyway.

And that plan is called The Civility Project, a new initiative that is not calling for unity—just respect. Organizers of The Civility Project, Republican Mark DeMoss and Democrat Lanny Davis, will tell you that a civil conversation can take place anywhere. Their goal is simple but lofty: To get Americans to agree to disagree without being disagreeable.

DeMoss and Davis are calling on liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans and people of all faiths to take the "pledge," which reads:

• I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.

• I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.

• I will stand against incivility when I see it.

DeMoss, president of his own public-relations firm—The DeMoss Group—said the project took shape during last year's election season.

"I had spent about two years volunteering for Mitt Romney, and I saw a lot of ugly rhetoric and behavior aimed at Mormons and then at me," he said. "And then the results of the Proposition 8 vote in California contributed to my thinking—when you saw gay activists responding to the (marriage amendment) vote by vandalizing churches and temples. I decided to launch a project where I would talk not about unity, not about tolerance, not about getting along, not about compromise, but just about civility."

DeMoss' unlikely partner in the project is Lanny Davis, a longtime adviser to the Clintons who has served three terms on the Democratic National Committee. Their paths crossed last year, as Davis was immersed in Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. DeMoss was so impressed with Davis' civil tone that he wrote him a letter.

"I suspect that politically you and I may have nothing in common," he wrote. "But as I've watched you conduct yourself in the public arena, I've always appreciated how you handled yourself, how you handle your adversaries, how you show respect for those who disagree with you, and for modeling civility in an increasingly uncivil town."

The letter took Davis by surprise.

 "I'm getting all this hate mail, and I get this amazing letter from a perfect stranger who identifies himself as an evangelical Christian," the Democrat said. "I always try to give deference to somebody who disagrees with me. That is the point Mark made in his letter, that he noticed that about me, that I always try to be respectful of people who are of a different opinion. The letter was so beautifully written and moved me so greatly. It's now framed on my bookcase."

DeMoss invited Davis to join The Civility Project late last year.

"When Mark called me about the project, the concept was exactly what I had written about in my book in 2006," Davis said. "It was like two parallel roads could cross. He was using exactly the vocabulary, the values, the approach to political debate and disagreement that I had been using already. It was almost as if we were brothers who had never met.

"Apart from everything else, we liked each other and respected each other. Mark understands that words matter, the way you express yourself matters, and the way you talk about people matters."

Davis said he is liberal on "every issue" and believes DeMoss is "wrong about almost everything."

DeMoss said there are plenty of options for civil discourse.  

"Writing is a terrific way to argue and debate," he said. "And that's one of the positive things about the information age—anybody can be a writer. Sit down and write a reasoned argument. Submit an opinion piece to a newspaper. Publish a blog. And if you're in a face-to-face debate, just be respectful. Make your case. And know what you're talking about."

Davis said America needs more people who believe in civility politics to speak out. The first step, he said, is to "take on people of your own ideology." Next, "we need members of Congress and others in the political arena to sign on to these principles."

Those who sign the civility pledge will not receive e-mails or fundraising requests. DeMoss said he hasn't even counted the signatures.

"I decided—and this runs counter to modern-day marketing principles—I was not trying to build a mailing list," he said. "I'm not trying to raise money. I've not sent a single e-mail to people that have taken this pledge."


To take the pledge, enter your first and last name and country at www.civilityproject.org.

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