Just Thinking

One Term, Different Ends

by Richard Gilman

You say “toh-mah-toh”, I say “toh-may-toh”.  You say “CIVIL discourse”, I say “civil DISCOURSE.”

The dialogue about discourse, which has developed in the wake of the shooting in Tucson of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, is itself starting to show lines of demarcation.  A close reading of public comments, and perhaps a close self-examination of our own interpretation, reveals that once again words mean different things to different people.

The fault lines were evident in an article, “Talk of Bipartisan Progress Fading in Arizona,” that appeared Jan. 28 in The New York Times.  Reporter Marc Lacey wrote, “ . . . All that talk of bipartisan handholding, toning down the decibel level and working shoulder-to-shoulder for the betterment of the voters is losing some of its edge here as Arizona appears to be slipping back into its old ways.”

In fact, “toning down the decibel level” does not necessarily go hand in hand with “bipartisan handholding” and “working shoulder-to-shoulder.”  As it happens, CIVIL discourse is not synonymous with civil DISCOURSE.

The distinction is important because it bears directly on hopes and expectations. Calls for civility can be interpreted either narrowly or more expansively.

Much of the discussion has been provoked by the assessment of Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff, who declared on the day of the shootings that political vitriol in the country was at least partly to blame for the attack.  Some cheered him; others vilified him.  Now there’s a movement afoot to recall him for his remarks.

The Times article quotes the organizer of a “Dump Dupnik” rally as saying, “We’ll be respectful, as we always are.  We are exercising the First Amendment, which we have the right to.  We are non-violent. We are civil.”

It also quotes John Kavanagh, the chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, whose comment was: “We’ve always been civil here, and I think reports of legislative incivility are greatly exaggerated.”

Those comments represent the narrow interpretation of CIVIL discourse.  Our tone and our words will be cordial. We will be nice. Achieving that seems to be the objective of some of the civil-discourse initiatives that have sprung up.

At a gathering of one such group, the story was told of how in an earlier day, Giffords held a town hall meeting to discuss the controversial legislation on health care.  A member of the audience took the microphone set up for attendees, is reputed to have jabbed his finger at Giffords and angrily shouted, “You’re a liar.”

That of course is eerily familiar to the disruption caused by the South Carolina congressman who called out “You lie!” during President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union Address.

Faced with the similar outburst on her home turf, Giffords was left to fend for herself.  She later expressed exasperation that none of her supporters in the audience came forward to object to the ugliness.

That would have been a step forward then and now.  Any and all efforts to eliminate vitriol and hostility in the public debate are to be applauded.  But that will not address the second issue.

The Times article gets at it with a comment from state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, who observes that the shootings have not awakened in Republicans any increased interest in finding common ground.  “Their opinion is, ‘We don’t really need you guys because we have plenty of votes on our own,’” she said.  Of course, with the tables turned during the deliberations on the health-care legislation in Washington last year, Republicans were similarly critical of Democrats.

It cuts both ways, right to left, and left to right.  One can be civil without budging an inch from self-righteousness.  “Truth,” as many view it, is simply their own sense of reality blended with their own beliefs.  Those who think differently are dangerous extremists. Compromise is to be despised.

Their objective is not to arrive at some common understanding.  It is to obtain the voting power to impose one’s own view.

This great, wide divide is not going to go away on its own.  Bridging it requires real, meaningful, purposeful dialogue.  This would be the more expansive interpretation of civil DISCOURSE. 

The resolution of virtually any serious conflict requires peacemakers who find a way to knock some sense into the knuckleheads on both sides.  In the politics of yesteryear, that role was played by a species called moderates, now supposedly extinct.  And yet here in Arizona, independent voters have come to out-number Democrats and in a few years may out-number Republicans.  They are deliberately not aligning themselves with either political party.

Maybe the time has come to take sides in another way.  Where would they put the accent?  On CIVIL or on DISCOURSE?  Where would you put the accent?

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  1. Richard Gilman on said:

    The denominator used for each state is its population. That’s a readily available figure to “normalize” for differences in size. But obviously it includes every man, woman and child. The number of taxpayers in each state, and the percentage they represent of the state’s population, would be very interesting to know. But that’s a very difficult number to know or calculate. Many people pay at least some sales tax over the course of the year; fewer file a tax return, and so on. I’m not sure we can hypothesize that Arizona has more or less.

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