Voting Is Not Our Only Civic Duty - Civility Is Another.

Today, Americans are called on to perform one of our most important civic duties - to vote. The notion of a civic duty is that citizens have a responsibility or obligation to their government in return for the rights granted them by their citizenship.

Nearly all Americans - left, right, or center - seem to be in agreement that every citizen should discharge his/her duty to vote today. But another of our fundamental civic duties seems to be less universally embraced or agreed upon.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in addition to obeying the law, voting, serving on a jury, and paying taxes, it is also our civic duty to “respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.” Nowhere in the listing or language of our civic rights and responsibilities, which can be found on the USCIS site here, does it delimit this required respect to those of one’s own party or those who conform with one’s own perspectives or opinions.

To be fair, the language of this duty does not explicitly state that one must respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of ALL others. Surely there are those who are not in compliance with the laws of the Constitution, and are therefore undeserving of its rights and benefits. But if one is not in breach of the law, then regardless of his/her political ideology and affiliation, is s/he not worthy of the same respect that each of us desires and demands?

To complicate the question a bit further, the USCIS list of duties also includes the responsibility to “defend the country if the need should arise.” If, therefore, the need should arise to defend the country and the constitution from our own compatriots, then there would seem to be an inherent conflict in the rights of our citizenship. How can we “respect the right, beliefs, and opinions of others” if those others are posing a threat to our nation and requiring us to fulfill our duty to “defend the country if the need should arise?”

Indeed, this seems to be the conundrum that many, on both the right and the left, find themselves in at the moment. They believe that their political foes pose a legitimate threat to the country, and therefore, they have determined that the duty to respect the other is subordinate to the duty of defense. It’s not an unreasonable calculation. In times of battle, manners and politesse are put aside in favor of more the essential requirements of victory and survival.

However, what must be assessed with sobriety and dispassion is whether the “battle” is as existential as many would have us believe. Is there truly a need for defense and virulent opposition, or is our democracy functioning generally as it was intended as a multi-party system where variant perspectives wrestle with each other in a push and pull that guarantees we don’t swing too far in one direction or the other? In such a case, while debate and opposition are useful and necessary, respect and civility should not be sacrificed in the name of defense. On the contrary, our duty to engage in respectful dialogue, debate and discourse is precisely what will maintain the well-being and strength of our Republic.

Regardless of the results of today’s elections, it appears that voter turnout will be record breaking. This is a sign of the health of our democracy. It would be promising, and beneficial to the entire voting public and citizenry, if all of those who have been passionately urging others to vote would also now conduct as vigorous a campaign to urge their friends and followers to fulfill their other civic duty to “respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.”

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