Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Removing the "eek" factor . . .

Yesterday in WMRA's weekly news meeting, our conversation centered around tonight's State of the Union address by President Obama. The consensus was that this year's address was, as these addresses go, as important as they get.

After the meeting I did some more thinking about why that is; why it seems extra important that we citizens not only listen to tonight's State of the Union address, but listen civilly. Why it seems so necessary that we discipline our minds to stay open as we listen to what both President Obama and our newly elected Virginia Governor, Bob McDonnell, the Republican responder, have to say.

It occurred to me that it was so important because an awful lot of Americans have gotten into the habit of reacting to what our elected lawmakers say rather than thinking about it. Shouting "eek!", is after all, much easier than carefully weighing conflicting opinions and arguments.

To test this hypothesis, I opened this morning's New York Times, which is widely read on-line across the country, and checked out the comments on the front page article, "President Plans Own Panel on the Debt."

All (at the time) 850 of them.

And I was hard-pressed to find a comment that I would call truly constructive. Instead there were 850 snide, cynical, indignant swipes at the President, or the administration, or Congress, or other people making comments. Clearly people found it more satisfying to express their personal outrage, rather than contribute anything constructive to the conversation.

  Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Back sometime before Christmas JMU professor Sarah O'Connor circulated a speech given by National Endowment for the Humanities Chair, Jim Leach, before the National Press Club. Sarah called it an excellent discussion of the importance of civil discourse, and to my mind it is just that.

The speech's title is "Bridging Cultures," and I thought this passage particularly relevant today, as we all (hopefully) prepare to hear what President Obama and Governor McDonnell have to say:
At issue today is a world struggling with globalist forces on the one hand and localist instincts on the other. Divisions are magnified at home as well as abroad.
It is particularly difficult not to be concerned about American public manners and the discordant rhetoric of our politics. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify—or cloud—thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts.
. . .Citizenship is hard. It takes a willingness to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another.
. . .Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Just as polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing approaches such as Lincoln’s call for a new direction “with malice toward none” can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.

Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy in this change-intensive century than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square.

If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and our way of life?
To me, the kind of civil discourse Jim Leach is talking about begins with civil listening.

And tonight is an excellent time to do just  that, to begin establishing that "ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square," that NEH Chair Jim Leach talks about.


  1. I love what you said about civil listening, Martha. With the pick-your-pt-of-view cable channels these days, it is very possible to hear only one's own pt of view.

    I am reminded of a newspaper story I read of two women in Massachusetts who had opposite positions on the abortion debate. They decided to meet just to talk for an hour. They got so much out of their discussion that they decided to meet again, then again. They ended up meeting regularly for three years. Neither of them changed her position, but they both gained great respect for the other's opinion.

    A civil society needs dialogue and not just reaction, as you said. Thanks for the thoughts. Keep them coming.

  2. Civil listening. Did you happen to come across, Martha, in your news browsing, the video of Samuel Alito saying aloud (with a quite vicious look on his face) "It's not true," when Obama criticized the Supreme Court's recent campaign finance decision?