Just Thinking

Civil Discourse Needs Right Aim

by Richard Gilman

The civil-discourse movement took a few steps forward and a few steps back one week after a mad man gunned down Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others.

President Obama, who came to Tucson on Wednesday in the wake of the shootings, called on Americans to engage in “a more civil and honest public discourse” of the issues that confront us.

A national group that hopes to raise civility across party lines held its first local organizing meetings Thursday evening.  At least two Arizona chapters, one in Phoenix and one in Tucson, each met for the first time. Although the organization got started nationally last year, its leaders acknowledge an uptick in interest since the Tucson shootings.

Then on Friday morning, a dozen or more elected officials from Tucson, representing all levels of government, pledged to promote a civil discussion.

At the same time, however, reality was setting in for others.

The backers of  a similar initiative in Washington threw in the towel.  The Associated Press reported that an organization named the Civility Project called it quits after getting only three members of Congress to pledge they would treat their opponents with respect.

Meanwhile New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks expressed doubts in a Friday column about the prospects for civil discourse.  In so doing, he drew a distinction in how “truth” is regarded.  Many are sure they know the “truth”; others are a little less certain.

Brooks contended “truth” is difficult to ascertain.  He described it as ”fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be fully reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.”

That does not stop,  he wrote, those “who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth . . . prefer monologue to dialogue . . . detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want . . . gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents . . . [and] feel no need for balance and correction.”

They do not need dialogue.  Their need is acquiring the power to impose what they believe.

Those seeking dialogue, he maintained, understand they need the help of others to divine a “truth” that incorporates the best thinking from many corners.  Indeed, that might be part of what they desire.  Their bigger wish though is to rescue us from the abyss that has deepened as the two sides jockey over their hardened positions.

The purpose of Thinking Arizona, in its small way, is to encourage such public discourse.

But mere handwringing along the lines of “now everyone has to play nice,” as well intentioned as that might be, has its limits.  Somehow the techniques have to be developed to encourage, maybe even force, such dialogue. One starting point might be to build support by framing issues in terms that transcend the normal partisan divide.

When it comes to the issue of weapons, for instance, a New York congresswoman is seeking to re-institute the ban on large-capacity ammunition clips such as was used in the Tucson shootings.  Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, recognizing that gun control are fighting words, says she prefers to speak in terms of gun safety.  There lies an important lesson in the importance of language.

A simple change in terminology runs the risk of quickly being unmasked as nothing more than code words.  On the other hand, maybe it’s a description that more people can sign up to support.

It certainly is a step in the right direction.  Even more broadly, as a friend and former colleague suggested the other day, maybe the overriding target should be community safety.  Now that might be worth talking about.

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  1. Monica Manning on said:

    I hope you will send an e-mail blast about this column. It’s definitely worth it. Since reading it on Tuesday morning, I’ve both reflected on it and returned to it for a second reading. Two points which stand out for me: First, David Brooks’ comment on how “truth” is perceived. He is on target that those who are sure they have the truth have no desire to find compromise. And those who are uncertain about what the truth might be often choose to avoid the dialogue because they feel they are not prepared. We have forgotten that politics is about compromise and instead see it as only about power. Second, and much more hopeful, is your suggestion of framing issues in terms that transcend the usual partisan divide. That has really left me thinking about some of the tough issues, e.g., abortion. In Minnesota, I watched several thoughtful, respected political leaders make the effort to find where “common ground” might be on this issue, but it didn’t go anywhere. Framing the issues in new ways takes a lot of thought, but it may well be worth the effort. Thinking Arizona is serving an important purpose, not just in attempting the framing but challenging the rest of us to join in.

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