Why do so many people seem unable to join the public debate with an idea or two for the common good without first tearing down someone else? Why does there have to be a conflict? Who goes through life looking for a fight?

Could we have a word about civility?

Why do so many people seem unable to join the public debate with an idea or two for the common good without first tearing down someone else? Why does there have to be a conflict? Who goes through life looking for a fight?

Some well-intentioned folks are asking everyone to turn out the lights for an hour this evening. It’s called Earth Hour, and you might have read about it in this newspaper or elsewhere. The idea is to save a couple of kilowatts and highlight the need to do something about global warming. Lots of people and organizations are taking part. The lights will be dimmed at our own state Capitol. It won’t save the world, but it’ll give some people something to think about and perhaps spur a few to action.

Whether you approach things like this with grim earnestness or react with a big “whatever,” who can see the harm in it, right? Turn off the lights or don’t. The world will spin on.

Right?

Wrong. Here comes a group called the Competitiveness Enterprise Institute, one of those many groups with so much time on their hands that I’m on their favored spam list. It calls this “plunging into the Dark Ages.” OK, fine. That’s snarky and halfway clever. Point well taken. Let’s move on.

Oh no, we’re not moving on. The institute is trying to organize a counteraevent, calling it Human Achievement Hour. The idea is – and who can make this stuff up? – turn on every light you have. Somehow giving the idealists the middle finger is now considered appropriate behavior. There was a time when political theater was done with a certain wit, which tells others it’s OK to take you seriously because you don’t take yourself too seriously. Those days seem long gone.

Here’s the thing about “Human Achievement Hour.” The harnessing of electricity is one of the great feats of humanity. (And I say this not just because family lore has it that Thomas Edison is my distant great-great-great-great uncle. Or cousin. Or something.) Think about it. Electricity and clean water have done more for human health, for safety, for industry and commerce – in a word, for prosperity – than just about any other forces. We take that for granted. People in Malawi and North Korea do not.

Mundane as this achievement has become to us, we should celebrate it.

But that’s not where the folks at the institute are coming from. Their approach is to tear down and ridicule, and even if you’re sponsored by the oil industry – as CEI is – and you are therefore hostile to anything that raises awareness of global warming, that is no excuse for rudeness. If you have nothing of value to say, consider quiet meditation instead of more hurtful babbling. The rest of us don’t need the excess chatter.

Much has been said about our squabbling elected leaders, about the low state of public discourse. Part of the problem with assuming that your adversary is always wrong and his every word requires an over-the-top response is that you end up babbling constantly instead of listening. If you listened, you might find something to agree with. You might find less space between yourself and the black hats. You might hear and understand another person’s story and point of view.

That’s what grownups do. It’s less loud, and it makes lesser political theater, but it’s responsible.