A search for civility

Civility, wherefore art thou?

In what can perhaps be called an exercise in perfect timing, the guest at Monday’s Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg was Allegheny College President James Mullen.

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Allegheny College president James Mullen.

Why? Because Mullen was a founder of the college’s annual national prize for civility in public life.

Just imagine: civility in public life.

Yet each year since 2011, the college, located in Northwestern Pennsylvania (Meadville, Crawford County), has awarded the prize to two honorees, one conservative, one liberal, who argue for their policies, causes and points of view with, well, civility.

Past winners include California Sen. Diane Feinstein, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Vice President Joe Biden.

You get the idea.

But it might be tough finding winners from this year.

During his luncheon address, Mullen noted the decline in civility “seems to be intensifying.”

He acknowledged things were rough in past presidential years, especially in earlier U.S. history (as in during campaigns of Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln), but said this time around he’s seen incivility used “as strategy,” putting this year’s race (if not the worst) right up there among the nation’s least civil.

He cited the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet and the anonymous unaccountability of social media as significant contributors.

And while he conceded incivility in politics is “much more newsworthy than the quiet virtues of civility,” he said he fears “we are becoming numb to incivility.”

He added that maybe the worst impact is among the young who become discouraged by negativity which, he said, could possibly lead to “the loss of a generation to public service.”

He noted polling commissioned by the college shows that in 2010, 95 percent of respondents said civility in public life is “important” but by 2016 that number dropped off to 80 percent.

He said in 2010, 85 percent of those polled believed elected officials should pursue friendships with members of the opposite party but in 2016 the percentage dropped to 52 percent.

I doubt we’ll see some softening in the final days of this campaign; or likely any excess of civility in its aftermath.

But the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life is a good idea, a beacon in the darkness, or at least a suggestion that things are better among a few and could be better among many more.

Plus, says Mullen, the college next year will offer a Pennsylvania civility prize. Here’s hoping there are two public figures worthy of receiving it.