Civic Discourse

By staff October 1, 2008

It’s appropriate to launch this column as an extraordinary election year nears the home stretch. Election campaigns are the ultimate example of civic discourse—the all-out exercise of the American system of talking things out. Reduced to its simplest terms, it’s “elect me, don’t elect him/her, and here’s why,” endlessly debated for six months (two years for the presidential race).

That’s a good thing. Without civic discourse, we would have a dictatorship. Or, more likely, anarchy.

But looming large in this election year is whether civic discourse is necessarily civil discourse. Certainly, we’ve seen plenty of examples in the last few months when it has not been very civil. The Internet smears of Barack Obama as a Muslim, a nonpatriot who disrespects the Pledge of Allegiance, whose middle name is—gasp!—Hussein. The marginalizing of John McCain’s POW experience. Locally, the back-and-forth between Christine Jennings and Vern Buchanan over old tax problems—problems that each asserts were mere clerical errors quickly resolved once brought to their attention.

And it wasn’t just on the campaign trail that the temperature of discourse at times exceeded that of the ambient air during muggy July and August. At the Sarasota City Commission, debate of a parking ordinance in Gillespie Park turned contentious more than once, with one irked commissioner twice walking out. And this spring discussion of the fate of the Paul Rudolph-designed Riverview High School got rowdy at times.

That doesn’t mean every debate must meet the Miss Manners test. In the Civility in Democracy series we’ve presented this election year in partnership with Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Sarasota Magazine and WUSF, the lead-off speaker, former Sen. Bob Graham, asserted, “Politics ain’t bean bag,” likening a political campaign to a football game involving his beloved Gators. In other words, fight hard to win—within the rules.

Yale Prof. Stephen L. Carter, who literally wrote the book on civility (Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, Harper Perennial, 1998), points out that “Civility does not require consensus on everything. Civility and disagreement can both thrive at the same time.” In other words, disagree agreeably. One of his fundamental rules: “Civility assumes that we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.”

Respectful disagreement, I suggest, does not include walking out of the room. Nor does it include shouting down an opponent, an experience I suffered through during a chamber committee meeting this spring. Either approach shuts down discourse. And it is belittling to be so disrespected —the rap term “dissed” now has personal meaning.

Carter refers to such behavior as “confrontational listening,” which he describes as “listening with our mouths rather than our ears—that is, listen[ing] only for the flaws, awaiting our chance to refute.”

Instead, he suggests “civil listening”—that is, “listening to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.”

What a concept: Actually listening to what another person has to say and weighing the validity of their views against our own! Now that would be civil civic discourse.

David Klement is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at USF Sarasota-Manatee. The final event in the Civility in Democracy series will be at 4 p.m. Oct. 8 at the local campus with Yale Prof. Stephen L. Carter as keynote speaker.

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