Right after the deciding vote in the Vermont House on public safety bill,S.141, I hopped on a jet for a weekend training in Tucson, Az. at the National Institute for Civil Discourse(NICD). The legislation that restricts firearms possession for violent felons and mentally ill individuals adjudicated as a threat, was on it’s way to passage, and I was on my way to join a small group of state legislators from across the US, to look at ways to promote more civil discourse.
Even before the shooting of US Rep. Gabby Gifford, in Tucson, the NICD, housed at Arizona State University, had begun efforts to bring more civility to public discourse. Rep. Gifford’s shooting galvanized those efforts.
Tragic shootings like Tucson’s or Newtown,Ct, are not entirely why I voted for S.141, but it was part of my reasoning. I agree with the many who felt we can’t wait to address a changing national and state landscape. A landscape where Elie Wiesel’s words , “When our language fails us, violence becomes our language”, were becoming all too accurately prophetic. It was time to take a stand and do something.
It’s also time nationally, to take a stand, and act on the belief that civil discourse was becoming less and less prevalent. This is a threat to the the heart of our democracy ( or our republic version ) at a time when our democracy would do well to take an evolutionary step forward.
Civil process to address conflict ,even acutely sharp conflict, are a prime function of
government and our justice system. Yet, from sitting members of Congress calling our President a liar during his State of the Union to online bullying, heightened rhetoric has shaken our sense that conflict can still be addressed in productive ways.
The group that gathered in Tucson, was selected to be geographically and politically
diverse. East, West, North and South were represented, as were the two major national parties, and left, right and center of each. What we had in common was the shared belief that the status quo needed improvement.
As we got to know and share with each other, it was fascinating to hear what was going on around the country. In much of the West and Southwest, drought and water shortages are growing more acute. Water in Colorado feeds several of the states in that area and until this year, interstate water agreements precluded Colorado residents from collecting the rain water falling from their own roof. A bill passed this year now allows that, but the concern is other states will challenge it in the courts.
Minnesotans are equally challenged as we are in Vermont, to grow their telecom/ broadband infrastructure out into rural areas. And, in West Virginia, a legislator shared passage of a bill that can provide school children with three meals a day to address childhood hunger.
What I shared about Vermont, are stories are of civil debates on budgets at Town meeting, or whether to buy a new fire truck. However, on issues like Civil Unions/ Marriage Equality, and updating public safety laws around guns, the rhetoric can sometimes turn ugly. In most instances, we practice using our voices, and our ears, as well as our hearts and minds. In those other instances, though, sometimes the rhetoric can get away from us.
Alongside the issues, and the desire to do better, we also shared the sense that we are acting as a counterculture response to the status quo. A status quo we also agreed, that was fostered significantly by a media, hungry for sensation, as well as party affiliation that can get stuck beyond practical purposes.
While many decry the negativity in our social and political discourse, fact is, it can work. And, as any traveling salesman will tell you, as long as folks are buying, they’ll keep selling.
Challenging the political status quo and the media are daunting tasks, but we are convinced if the escalation of rhetoric continues, our political system is unsustainable. (An example of media skewing a story is how the local Tucson TV station featured our workshop, with the storyline, “Political Dysfunction!”). Bottom line is, we feel we can better get our work done for the American people without getting stuck on personalities, polemics and sensationalism.
So what does more civil discourse look like?
Here in Vermont, I remember stories of our own Republican Senator, the late George Aiken and his daily breakfasts with Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana. That simple act of breaking bread can go far in bridging political divides. As important though, are opportunities to share our personal stories. As the old adage goes, the quickest way to build a bridge between two people is to share your stories. And, indeed, it works.
Our stories of struggle and triumph reveal our common humanity and can stop the demonizing of the “unknown other”. Whether it’s a difference because of race, color, creed or political persuasion, we are the same species and our survival depends on getting along better than we have.
Civil discourse doesn’t mean we agree on everything but that if we disagree, it isn’t taken as a threat to our very being. It’s also having both sides of an issue accept that disagreement doesn’t mean the other side isn’t listening – they just don’t agree.
Whether we think taxes should be raised or cut, we would do well to accept that both
perspectives rise up from a place of belief of what’s best for the state or nation.
We’re losing that sense. Left, right, conservative or liberal, our fears and labels are getting us stuck in place and are limiting our vision of helping our nation continue to evolve. Of being able to “see beyond our own backyard”.
We don’t have to let go of our core values or beliefs to accept another way of thinking. In the political arena, if compromise is needed to move an idea forward or
even part of an idea, it can be worth it. From my perspective, the key is helping things move forward and not staying stuck.
Now, those efforts to nurture the foundation of our nation and return civil discourse in the public arena are being organized by Tucson’s NICD (along with other groups in the US such as No Label). 26 State legislators, from around the country (including myself) have now been trained to offer workshops at state legislatures on keeping it civil. We will meet with seemingly disparate groups to sit, talk, break bread and share our stories about our common humanity. Finding common ground and appealing to ,as Lincoln stated, “…the better angels of our nature”, we will also remember our common love for democracy and this great experiment in democratic principles.
We can also put into practice the lesson I learned from the kindergartner I spoke with at a recent school visit. He shared that a practical lesson for the day he learned was, “Use your words not your teeth.” A good lesson for all of us, especially in the political arena.
Warts and all, I believe these United States still hold the greatest hope for how to move forward, in a civilized manner, into the 21st century. The NICD is laying out the intention and practice for how we can do better, starting at the state legislature
level and hopefully, feeding upwards to the US Capitol.
With those intentions and subsequent practice of these ideals, we can hold fast in the belief that democracy is still the best hope for the future. And, that civil discourse is at the heart of that path forward.
For more info about the National Institute for Civil Discourse, check out their website: