If civility is dead, at least be productive

Published: Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 at 2:40 p.m.

Maybe civility can't be saved in politics.

That's one lesson that could be taken from the City Commission candidate debate Thursday between Annie Orlando and Helen Warren, which I moderated.

In an effort to expand the discussion beyond topics that get discussed ad nauseam, The Sun solicited questions from the community. Unfortunately, most of the suggestions we received were personal and political attacks, barely disguised as questions.

As for the debate itself, there were times when the candidates' answers provided some illumination on their public policy views. But often there was more heat than light.

I'll take responsibility for my role in setting the tone as moderator. I pressed for specific policy proposals in an effort to prevent canned speeches or personal attacks, with mixed success. Even a question about a lack of civility caused sniping.

Of course, political campaigns can get pretty rough. And civility is in the eye of the beholder: Some current and former city commissioners point to personal attacks at public comment as dragging down the level of discourse. Some public-comment regulars say the original sin was committed by a commission that didn't give them enough time to speak or heed their concerns.

Civility also can be used as a tool to discredit the opposition. We see this on a national level when an insulting but inconsequential comment by a politician provokes waves of manufactured indignation from the other side.

It's a phenomenon also infecting the local political debate. A disparaging comment from one member of the City Commission sometimes sparks the target of the remark to spend much longer complaining about being a victim. And these perceived slights then take on lives on their own, resurfacing months later to burn up more time and energy at another meeting.

It's enough to make you think that worrying about civility is a big waste. Perhaps people are just naturally nastier in a world where they get their information from online echo chambers and attention by spewing nuggets of venom on Twitter.

That's why I've always loved newspapers. People can complain all they want about a supposed bias in reporting, but people of all political persuasions can find something in the paper that reinforces as well as challenges their views.

It's healthier for our democracy when people are exposed to a broad range of news and opinion rather than a narrow one. But maybe pining for that world is a lost cause, just like expecting politicians to suddenly start playing nice with each other.

On a local level, I certainly hope The Sun can be a part of promoting a respectful public discourse. But a more important goal is identifying solutions to the challenges facing us.

We have some major issues involving the city budget, energy and transportation coming up. Our leaders must offer plans to address these issues, no matter the manner in which they deliver them.

Perhaps it's time to worry less about the tone of the political debate and more about the content. If we can't be civil, let's at least be productive.

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