According to custom, the government and opposition benches in the British House of Commons are separated by a length equivalent to “two swords and one inch.”
The practice harks back to a time when members of Parliament regularly carried blades.
Presumably, the distance was meant to guard against the possibility that verbal sparring could easily erupt into physical confrontation — an event that wasn’t unknown on the floor of the U.S. House in past centuries, either.
The tradition remains intact today, a reminder “to seek resolutions by peaceful means.”
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We’ve come a long way since the days when armed combat was a possible resolution to political disputes.
We are, in some ways, more civilized than our forebears.
And in our modern democracy, good people on opposing sides of an issue can engage in cordial-but-spirited debate on a controversial subject without tearing each other to shreds.
At least that’s what we’d like to think.
But one need only open the morning paper, click an Internet browser or turn on the television to see that although it is absent long swords, our current political environment is combative and trending the wrong direction.
The 2016 election cycle provides fruitful illustrations.
Just listen for two minutes of almost any speech given by reality TV star turned presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Or look at his Twitter feed.
It is largely a catalog of insults, sometimes bordering slander, and veiled threats issued to his critics and political opponents, Republican and Democrat alike.
Trump is the most notorious current offender, but he’s not alone.
During an early Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton boasted to the audience that the “enemy” she was most proud of making is “probably the Republicans.”
Perhaps more disturbing than her response were the cheers and applause from the audience.
That’s because politicians like Trump and Clinton, for all their faults, are merely playing to an American public that welcomes this view of one’s political opponents. That is, those who disagree with you aren’t just wrong, they are evil.
With the ubiquity of social media, we live in a society full of people who regularly espouse malevolence for those who do not share their opinions.
Read the comments on almost any news article or opinion piece – or maybe better yet, don’t.
While a few are cogent and measured responses to the argument presented, the majority are full of ad hominem attacks on the author and other commenters.
Or consider the “discussions” that take place on social media.
Just last week I watched with a combination of amusement and disgust as a Facebook page for local moms erupted in insults when its members began debating a new policy regarding transgender students in public schools.
I cringed when I read the comments of one participant who assailed a woman who did not share her opinion by claiming that an Internet search revealed that she was widely disliked in the virtual world.
In the profound words of the late Andrew Breitbart, the ever-controversial but insightful right-wing journalist, “politics is downstream of culture” and not the other way around.
So while we blame our politicians for playing to our basest instincts — which they seem to do with zeal — they often just reflect the lack of civility that drives our daily interactions.
Indeed, our cultural devolution is driving our political decline and not the other way around.
Instead of swords we have comment boxes, Facebook “debates” and Twitter feeds.
Instead of fists we use insults and slander.
The damage caused by our incivility may not be physical, but it is no less dangerous to democracy.
And unlike our forebears who had the “two swords and one inch” rule to compel their good conduct, we operate without constraint, perpetuating a culture of incivility.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.