Meaningful civil discourse is on life support in America. We’ve descended to a point where a crazed partisan activist can shoot members of Congress and a journalist states the wounds were “self-inflicted” due to the victims’ belief systems. This is at odds with our best traditions as a nation.
In the past, American political violence stemmed from actual, tangible infringement of rights or abuse of power. Violence and property destruction surrounding the labor and civil rights movements were most often the result of callous disregard for workers’ humanity, or by governmental agents suppressing demonstrators.
While the American Revolution and the Civil War were political battles fought over fundamental rights, competing political ideas have rarely led to violence in America. Loyalists were not shooting members of the Continental Congress. Before the Civil War, abolitionists weren’t assaulting Southern members of Congress. Violence was expressed in battles, not riots and personal assaults. This is not the case now.
Those of us who compete in the arena of ideas used to respect each other. We listened to each other, if for no other reason than to sharpen and refine our own arguments. During their famous debates, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas each repeatedly assured the other of his respect. Our politically active citizenry seems to lack this capacity, as recent violence against members of Congress, university faculty, and other public speakers attests.
We are debating policies that strike to the core of whether we are going to continue to follow our Founders’ vision for America or are going to evolve (or descend?) into a different nation. If we are going to make government work again, if we are going to make our neighborhoods work again, we need to re-establish respect and elevated discourse.
As a person active in political affairs, I recognize there will be disagreements among well-intentioned individuals regarding important matters of public policy. The concepts of liberty, equality, self-reliance, charity, justice, and mercy often compete with each other, each demanding competing policies. Our policies reflect our society’s prioritization of resources and principles.
I recognize that someone I disagree with on a matter of public policy is most likely not motivated by hate, greed, or animosity toward fellow citizens, but merely believes in a different way to accomplish laudable goals. The best way to come to a reasonable conclusion on important policies is through reasoned, civil, and collegial debate. Such debate must be supported by facts and evidence, and conducted with candor and goodwill.
I pledge to conduct public discourse in the following manner and will publicly encourage our supporters to act in the same manner. Can our political activist class adhere to the following principles?
1. I recognize all Americans have a fundamental right to civil discourse, even if the ideas may make others uncomfortable.
2. I recognize those who disagree with me also want what they believe to be a better country for their children and grandchildren.
3. I will never condone violence or destruction of property by private citizens or government agents to curb or intimidate speech regarding public policy.
4. I will not call for, nor will I encourage others to call for, violence or property destruction to advance a political argument or suppress speech.
5. In discussing matters of public interest, I will refrain from using hyperbole merely to incite a visceral reaction.
6. I recognize that many phrases and colloquialisms commonly used in civil public discourse are not, in reality, calls for violence or destruction of public property. I discourage the media, activists, and other public figures from mischaracterizing such phrases when they are clearly benign literary devices.
7. I will not accuse those who disagree with me of hating or wishing harm to people because of policies they advocate. I may still discuss the failings of policies and laws in a direct and substantive manner.
8. I do not have to accept the fundamental assumptions underlying opposing ideas.
9. I may use the time-honored and effective communication tools of satire and humor with evidence, logic, and argument to advance or oppose a policy position.
10. I may make subjects of my arguments, satire, and humor uncomfortable, but I will not denigrate their inherent humanity.
11. I pledge to be gracious when I am on the receiving end of argument, satire, and humor.
If we discipline our speech, we can return to vigorous, honest, and thoughtful debate over issues of importance. We may even save a few friendships with our neighbors.
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Don Petrille, Bedminster, is the elected register of wills and clerk of the Orphans’ Court of Bucks County.