Much has been made of former President George W. Bush’s speech Thursday at the Bush Institute’s Spirit of Liberty event in New York, a call for a renewal of American spirit and values and a strengthening of its civic institutions.
While Bush did not mention President Trump by name, many have taken the comments as criticism toward the current president and his Twitter feed.
“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together,” Bush said.
But assuming that the former president was referring only to the White House’s current occupant narrows the focus of the address, which was intended to inspire broader reflection among the nation as a whole.
The same subjects — as well as the same call to action — were addressed two days earlier at a panel discussion on civil discourse at Edmonds Community College’s Black Box Theater, organized by the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County in partnership with EdCC, Sno-Isle Libraries, the American Association of University Women and the Snohomish County NAACP.
Moderated by Bob Drewel, former Snohomish County executive and current senior adviser to WSU Everett’s Chancellor Paul Pitre, the panel brought together representatives from education, politics, the community and the media: Becky Ballbach with the Everett School District’s human resources office; Naol Debele, an EdCC student trustee; state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood; Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling; Dr. Janice Greene, president of the NAACP county chapter; Jacquelyn Styrna with the Dispute Resolution Center of Snohomish County; Teresa Wippel with My Edmonds News; and myself.
“Are you alarmed,” Drewel began by asking each, “at the tone and tenor of discourse as well as its reach into everyday life?”
The general response: Alarmed, yes, but not discouraged to the point of not being able to see a way forward to restore civility as a tool of democracy and community.
It’s not difficult to understand the threat that incivility poses. It detracts from the effectiveness of our governments, sows division and distrust in our communities and limits our contact with the world outside ourselves. And it feeds on itself, isolating us in an ever-shrinking bubble.
What’s happened, Styrna said, is that our acceptance of incivility — by our leaders and ourselves — threatens to normalize disrespect and hostility.
Debele, originally from Sudan, said the immigrant community among his fellow students sees some of that incivility directed at them, causing some to question whether they can remain, even in a country that has benefited richly from the contributions of immigrants.
While some may sense an increase in incivility, it’s been with us long before President Trump set thumbs to tweet. The arrival of social media, however, has had a tendency to amplify the discord.
Wippel noted how the anonymity of online comments easily leads to attacks and falsehoods, allowing some to speak without having to put their name to their statements. Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are only just now addressing how to limit the reach of the purveyors of fake news.
And our own delight in reveling in outrage distracts us and justifies in our minds our uncompromising stances.
But even among the tweet tirades and personal attacks, there are examples where civility wins out. Liias recalled this year’s successful negotiations among Republicans and Democrats to pass a paid family leave act in the Legislature. Likewise, Earling noted how “testy but respectful” contract talks with the firefighters union led to an agreement that won 4-1 approval from the fire district board and 6-1 from the city council.
In encouraging civility in public discourse, what is sought is not mere politeness. Civility doesn’t require us to be silent in the face of disagreement or ignore our principles and beliefs.
Dr. Green warned against the “Northwest niceness” that can paper over differences of opinion and keep us from addressing important problems.
“If it’s a blatant lie, it’s a blatant lie. We need to find ways to deal with that,” she said.
What civility requires more than pleasantries begins with the skills we were supposed to learn in school.
Referring to her 30 years in education, Bellbach noted that our training in civility begins in the classroom, particularly as disputes are refereed between students, by emphasizing the importance of listening and empathy.
Those are lessons many of us seem to let slide in the middle of an argument — whether we’re discussing abortion or an NFL player kneeling during the national anthem — when we refuse to give full consideration to what the other person is saying and decide for ourselves what their beliefs and motives are.
We obviously could use more practice in civility, for our sake, but also for the benefit of our children and the country we leave to them.
“The very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation,” Bush said at his address Thursday.
“The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”
— Jon Bauer, Herald opinion page editor
Watch the forum online
Video of the Oct. 17 forum, “Civil Discourse for Civic Engagement,” will be available at the League of Women Voters website at tinyurl.com/CivilityForumLWV.