There was a provocative public forum in Seattle last week focused on building more civil dialogue in our politics. I came away encouraged that the tenor of discourse can be changed if each of us contributes to making it happen.
What passes for civic dialogue these days in the media and on the political stage is far from civil. Our country has always had vehement disagreements, but today’s state of acrimony and venomous personal attacks has gotten way out of hand. Finding common ground and compromise has been shunted aside in favor of an ‘I win, you lose’ mindset. When we cannot sit down and hear our those with whom we disagree, our democracy is in trouble.
We see this incivility in the yelling and screaming on the news networks and in the disrespect that lawmakers express in state capitals and Washington, D.C. But it’s not a problem just for “politicians.” It’s one we all contribute to.
The Seattle City Club, a nonpartisan organization working to improve civic engagement, sponsored the forum, which was titled “Civil Discourse: Getting to the heart of the matter.”
It featured a diverse panel, including a Republican lawmaker from Puyallup, a Democratic campaign strategist from Seattle, the chair of the University of Washington School of Communications, and a nationally known author, Parker Palmer, whose latest book is “Healing the Heart of Democracy — The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.”
Palmer suggested that each of us can take steps to begin repairing the infrastructure of our democracy by “small, invisible acts.”
“This country began with the words ‘We, the people,’ ” said Palmer. While the founders got it wrong by excluding women and African Americans from ‘we, the people,’ Palmer said they created a system that left critical questions on the table so that we could come back and discover better solutions.
That takes open dialogue to explore other views fully, said Palmer. That’s what we need to restore.
Part of what has led us to the incivility, according to University of Washington professor David Domke, is that we have segregated ourselves politically and socioeconomically, and tend to interact only with those who hold similar views.
Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, talked about the need for candidates to control their messages and not be influenced by campaign consultants who would have them go negative.
“Effective policy comes out of effective relationships,” said Zeiger, and those relationships involve valuing the perspective of those with whom you disagree. Zeiger has reached across the aisle to start dialogue for legislators who are under 40 years old. That’s a positive start.
Finding people courageous enough to stand apart from their parties, build relationships and do what is in the long-term best interest of the community, state and country is essential.
Domke said he was inspired by Zeiger’s position on the issue. As individuals, he said, we need to be willing to change our views and allow others to change their views and not be permanently typecast.
I like the notion that rather than waiting for “those people” to change, each of us must act to build greater civility.
One of the questions that I plan to address in The World is enforcing a higher standard of civility in online comments. I welcome thoughts from readers on how we can contribute to civil dialogue.
The City Club forum is well worth watching. It can be accessed on www.seattlecityclub.org on their past events page.