Opinion

Civility can reroute the paths of contentious debate in Idaho, elsewhere

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, was in Boise last week talking about how Idahoans can help address polarized politics. She spoke at a dinner sponsored by the City Club of Boise.
Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, was in Boise last week talking about how Idahoans can help address polarized politics. She spoke at a dinner sponsored by the City Club of Boise. Photo by Marcia Franklin

I had moments this week when I felt the excitement and apprehension of one of those people about to climb a mountain, follow a continental trail or face some kind of crisis with my head up into a head wind.

At such times I am reminded of the proverb: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The journey in this instance is for those of us in the media, in politics and on Main Street — that’s everybody — to begin a dialogue that could talk us down from the incivility that threatens to take our country down and shatter the ideals upon which we were founded.

Gridlock and mistrust are working overtime in our chambers of Congress and in our statehouses. Incivility is pumped and broadcast daily over our airways and on our devices, fueled by its own toxic momentum. From Idaho to the inner sanctums of our nation’s capital, we hear our duly elected officials calling one another liars. We hear candidates launch insults like mortars into unsuspecting crowds — somehow believing there is no collateral damage.

There is no vaccine or pill to inoculate us from the same fate of the lost civilizations we study. There is only a hope that we could soon recognize we must stop, and begin to direct things in a more civil direction.

Most of us recognize this and want it, but we have not made it the priority it needs to be. Too often we have abdicated our responsibility to vote or failed to measure our candidates based on their civility and propensity to get things done for us — not them. We sit idly and accept candidate ratings from ideologues and lobbying organizations instead of forming our own.

And who can blame young people and others who tune out nasty campaigns and gridlocked governments? It is understandable, sadly, that smart people sometimes decide that their time and efforts to get involved and get informed will make no difference.

I was heartened Wednesday to participate in discussions with Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD). I was excited to learn the City Club of Boise had invited her to speak at its 20th anniversary gala that evening and the organization was embarking on a yearlong “City Club Civility Project” — a natural extension of the club motto coined by co-founder Dottie Stimpson that “nothing happens until people start talking.”

I was further encouraged that the following day Lukensmeyer and her associates were going work with members of the Idaho Legislature to consider ways to promote civil discussions and common-ground problem solving — just in time for a new year that will see campaigns and elections dominate discourse.

The NICD was born of tragedy. It was created in 2011, just days after an insane gunman opened fire on a gathering of constituents at a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz., where then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was conducting an open-air town hall with the kind of bipartisan civility she had become known for in the U.S. House. The assailant killed six bystanders, including a judge, a 9-year-old child and one of Giffords’ staff members. The shooting left Giffords near death with a bullet wound to the head.

She later left Congress to concentrate on her recovery — and to take up healing causes, such as promoting more civility in our public debates and discourse.

It is hard work attempting to stem the tide of incivility in our processes. Such lofty goals are met with suspicion, detachment and derision in some quarters. But none of these hazards should intimidate the need for us to listen to one another.

I know from personal experience that those involved in the political process — the people, the press, the politicians — too often see government as an exercise of winning and losing for them. Part of the daunting task for progress will be working to redefine winning — as achieving goals for the greater good, conducted in a collaborative atmosphere where civil debate is practiced.

I was encouraged at the City Club gala when Brent Hill, president pro tempore of the Idaho Senate, took the stage and shared anecdotes about a visit to an Idaho prison to sit with inmates and hear their stories.

One such man was full of regret about the fact his family and children were learning from his bad examples, rather than the good examples he wished he had projected.

Hill turned that on himself, his legislative colleagues, the press and the public and challenged everyone to be the good example Idahoans could hold up in pursuit of good governance.

Anybody can make headlines by throwing insults and calling people names, Hill said, “but civility gets things done.”

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