Cleaveland: Mr. Rogers still teaches us civility

photo Dr. Clif Cleaveland

A recent gift of "You Are Special" by Fred Rogers took me back to simpler times when I watched episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" with our young sons. The 30-minute program on PBS taught lessons sorely needed in contemporary, public discourse.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" began its unique, 36-year run on public television in 1965. The host entered a living-room set, changed from shoes to slippers and replaced his coat with a cardigan knitted by his mother. The ensuing conversations, poems and songs with a variety of characters -- Mister McFeely, Queen Sarah Saturday, puppets, child and adult visitors -- emphasized generosity, compassion and understanding of differences. A common humanity was emphasized throughout the episodes.

Nowadays, rudeness and confrontation often pass for discourse on talk shows. Talking heads are increasingly ill-tempered, shouting heads. Aggressive personalities trump content. Television programs such as "The Apprentice" pretend that mockery and meanness are a form of entertainment. Judges for talent competitions deliver more insults than compliments.

Rather than negotiate and find common ground, increasingly

polarized politicians use the media and committee hearings to lambaste their opponents and their proposals. The result is gridlock, while complex issues are postponed rather than addressed.

Imagine Fred Rogers as speaker of the House of Representatives. Quotations from his book are highlighted along with my imagined dialogue.

"The older I get, the more convinced I am that the space between communicating human beings can be hallowed ground."

We can derail our communication with each other by angry and carelessly chosen words. Hostility closes the door to understanding. Let's stop wasting time by hurling insults, by presuming that our individual views are the only ones that count.

"Listening and trying to understand the needs of those we would communicate with seems to me to be the essential prerequisite of any real communication. And we might as well aim for real communication."

America is a greater patchwork of varied cultures, ethnicities, races and religions than ever before. We have the opportunity to build something really special if we can put aside our personal biases and listen quietly to opinions and beliefs that may be quite different from our own.

"In times of stress, the best thing we can do for our children (and for each other) is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers."

We have the privilege of representing all the people of our districts. They elected us to solve problems. They expect us to find common ground so that we can move forward in a sensible, affordable fashion. No one in this chamber has all the answers. We must be courteous in our speech, ask probing questions and listen attentively to what each of our colleagues has to say. There is no problem that we cannot solve.

"As you continue to work on your understanding of yourself and others, you are really engaged in love."

It may be a stretch for us to love each other, given our different backgrounds and philosophies. But we can certainly extend respect to every member of this chamber. We can demonstrate to the people in our districts that differences can be settled peaceably. Because we are so often in the spotlight we can become role models for a gentler method of resolving conflicts. Now let us proceed with our important work.

The final episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" aired in 2001. Fred Rogers died in 2003.

Email Clif Cleaveland at