Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell want Utahns to add a simple but often-forsaken element to their New Year's resolutions: civility.
Standing inside the serene Memorial House at Memory Grove Park on Thursday, the high-profile leaders said public discourse has grown too acerbic, conversations too combative, and the state's politics too polarized to be healthy.
As a tonic, they launched the Utah Civility and Community 2011 Initiative, a call to action designed to restore decorum and a respect for divergent opinions throughout the state.
"We have to speak with measured tones, with great respect for people," said Bell, a Republican who insisted that being open-minded and open-hearted doesn't require abandoning one's principles. "We need to examine our biases."
The civility campaign is the brainchild of a 33-member advisory council made up of luminaries from civic organizations, faith groups, academia and politics.
It comes at the dawn of a contentious Congress, weeks before the Utah Legislature convenes and against a backdrop of acrimonious debate about immigration, gay rights and fiscal discipline.
"Civility, to me, is at the heart of good decision-making," said Becker, a Democrat who lamented that the 24/7 digital news cycle too often rewards the shrill and impolite. The mayor, who recently announced plans to seek a second term this year, called civility just as liberty, equality and happiness both aspirational and elusive. And he urged residents to consider how they treat co-workers, loved ones and people who are disagreeable.
"If we can start in the public arena," Becker said, "then we can try to carry it on in our private world."
Organizers plan to stage a half-dozen "summits" on civility during the first quarter of 2011, said John Kesler, president of the Salt Lake Center for Engaging Community. In addition, college students will be dispatched as mentors to deliver the message. Residents are invited to e-mail or snail mail their stories about practicing or witnessing civility, Kesler said, and awards for the best cases will be presented in November.
"Nothing will be changed entirely by the end of the year," he said, "but our hope is we will experience a little bit of a shift in culture."
To help make it tangible, organizers have printed colorful cards that read, "Civility. Pass it on." On the flip side, the card includes the initiative website: http://www.utahcivility.org.
The civility council hopes Utahns who can get information about the cards online will hand them out during daily conversations, when they witness arguments, or as a reward when they see an act of civility.
Longtime Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini, a key organizer, said the campaign borrows tenets from the "Three R's Project" launched in the mid-1990s to boost rights, responsibility and respect in Utah schools.
"It changed the whole culture of the classroom," Seghini said. "This will work if we all recognize that we have the responsibility to protect the rights of all people, or we might lose our own."
She bemoaned that people too often don't take time to listen, especially to the "meek," so that all they hear is the "guy with the pitchfork."
In a video produced for the campaign, Utahns for Ethical Government head Kim Burningham summarized the idea simply: "Shut up."
Utah officials and the news media, including the LDS Church-owned Deseret News and KSL, have launched previous civility drives on issues such as immigration. This new initiative though not directed at any particular issue aims to unite community leaders statewide in a grass-roots undertaking that will involve civic, business and neighborhood groups.
Still, on the day it was launched, Republicans in the U.S. House, attempting to read the Constitution aloud, were interrupted when a woman in the gallery shouted something about President Barack Obama's nationality. Rhetoric also raged in Utah last year after a list of purported illegal immigrants was leaked to the press and, in 2009, after a same-sex kiss on the LDS Church-owned Main Street Plaza sparked a citation and protests.
But Bell suggested old habits can indeed die. He singled out sometimes-truculent Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, as a Utah legislator with an open mind.
"He exemplifies a lot of what we need to see in our political discourse today," Bell said as Bramble looked on.
For his part, Becker said the civility cards have already made a difference. At a nursing home Wednesday, the mayor passed around the little reminders among seniors "who are not always the most civil" while visiting his mother, who is recovering from a broken hip.
"I couldn't believe the reaction I got," Becker said. "If it helps a little bit, that's good."
Civility. Pass it on.
That catchphrase, printed on colorful cards for Utahns to distribute, is the focus of a new program called, "Utah Civility and Community 2011." Lt. Gov. Greg Bell and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker are co-chairmen of the campaign, which urges residents to be more civil, caring and inclusive.
More information is available beginning Friday at http://www.utahcivility.org.
Leading the charge
A who's who of Utah leaders has come together to form a civility advisory council, including: Cynthia Buckingham, executive director of the Utah Humanities Council; Alexander Morrison, Alliance for Unity; John Kesler, Salt Lake Center for Engaging Community; Kim Burningham, Utahns for Ethical Government; David Doty, Canyons School District superintendent; McKell Withers, Salt Lake City School District superintendent; JoAnn Seghini, Midvale mayor; Kristin Fink, Coalition for Civil Character and Social Learning; Melinda Cavallaro, Salt Lake Center for the Arts; and state Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo.