Commentary

For Labor Day Let’s Celebrate the ‘Call for Acts of Civility’

By JOHN M. IMPERIALE | Aug 28, 2019

Dialogue beats monologue every time. That sentiment comes from a man who admittedly likes to talk. A lot. Me.

However, I learned long ago that you learn by listening, debating, exchanging ideas, being open-minded, recognizing the intelligence and thoughtfulness of others. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: You can hear a lot by listening.

Public discourse has always been, and always will be, the basis for societal gains; no great step forward has ever been taken by one person, independent of the community. America itself was not founded on the battlefields of the American Revolution, but in the town halls and colonial conventions and, yes, in the back room of pubs like The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston (called “The Headquarters of the Revolution” by Daniel Webster) or Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, where Ben Franklin recruited the Pennsylvania Militia. People talking to people, agreeing, disagreeing, exchanging points of view, perhaps changing some minds, perhaps changing one’s own mind – civilization needs civility.

Yet today it may seem like people with differing views do not discuss and debate; they argue and vilify. That does not get you anywhere.

Which leads me to my current source of inspiration: Cindy McCain and the “Call for Acts of Civility.” To honor the one-year anniversary of the death of her husband, Sen. John McCain, Mrs. McCain has called on Americans to engage in “acts of civility.”

That does not mean agreeing, or disagreeing, with her or her husband’s policies and positions. It means engaging in useful, productive, civil conversations about the issues that face our nation and our communities.

It reminded me of a column not too long ago in The SandPaper by Frances Hopkins O’Neill. Ms. O’Neill, whom I have never met but would love to, wrote that “liberals and conservatives are both necessary for a vibrant, modern and solvent nation.” I have written hundreds of op-ed columns, virtually all of them preaching cooperation as a key to effectiveness and problem-solving in public policy, but I have never said it so succinctly and perfectly as Ms. O’Neill.

Yet, after a summer of company and visitors, of vacationers and renters, of barbecues, pizza parties and concerts in the park, all breeding grounds for lively debate, I am astounded at how two very different societal traits stand out: civility and incivility.

Civility, as Cindy McCain and Ms. O’Neill would profess, requires listening, respectfully. Disagree if you must – though first have an open mind and consider the other side. If, after careful consideration, you still disagree, at least respect the other person’s right to hold a different viewpoint.

Start from the standpoint that we all want what is best, for our country and for our community. What that “best” is may be subjective, may take differing forms, may, in fact, be the exact opposite of what you believe is “best.” But start from the premise that we all want what we believe to be the “best.”

Those who disagree with us are not our enemies. They are, in fact, our neighbors.

So hold fast to your opinion, if you must – after listening and considering the other side. John McCain loved a good debate. To quote him: “I think it’s a very legitimate aspect of American life to criticize and to disagree and to debate.” The key word in that statement is “legitimate.” For a debate to be legitimate, both sides need to be heard and respected. I have always been enchanted by the idea of a “friendly debate.” In fact, a debate must, by its nature, be “friendly.” Otherwise it is an argument.

I have learned so much from my friends, my coworkers, my family and, most importantly, by people with whom I have disagreed, but who have then educated and enlightened me. I like to think that I have convinced others more often than not to come over to my point of view, but that really is irrelevant. What matters is the open discussion.

It may seem that we are more polarized than ever, that there are opposing positions on every issue and those espousing each position could never agree, compromise or resolve in a way that brings progress. I don’t buy it. I believe civility, the kind of civility that Cindy McCain is calling for, is the American way. Americans will go to war for what is right, but we will first try the power of persuasion.

The American Revolution was decades in the making, and most of our revolutionary heroes hoped to the very end that England would simply acquiesce to the reasonable demands of the colonies so that they could remain loyalists. One of the most brilliant minds in history, the British philosopher and political genius Edmund Burke, tried to prevent war in 1774 and 1775 by introducing a series of resolutions called “On Conciliation with America.” Oh, and as he pushed for such a reconciliation, he also noted that he disagreed with many of the colonists’ demands. He simply urged having a dialogue.

The dialogue with England never happened, but dialogues sprang up all over America, creating the “spirit” that led to freedom and the creation of the greatest form of government ever imagined. The founders faced disagreement and opposing viewpoints on virtually every issue. But, again, dialogues led to an effective solution. When the guns of the Revolution were laid down, the pens of the patriots were picked up.

Think of the Federalist Papers, the writings that led to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. They are famous. What is not as well known is that there was also a series of anti-Federalist essays. Citizens were given both sides of the debate to consider so that even those opposed to the Constitution, such as Patrick Henry, came to support and defend it after it was ratified.

Today, the halls of Congress may constitutionally be the locale of national debate, but the true national debate that shapes America, and indeed shapes our communities, takes place in our dining rooms, in our local newspapers, in our restaurants, parks and beaches. The more citizens express their opinion, the more issues can be fully examined. Progress and solutions arise from careful evaluation of all positions. No one should be quiet.

Everyone should be civil.

John M. Imperiale, a regular contributor to this page, is a candidate for commissioner in Harvey Cedars. He can be reached at johnmimperiale@gmail.com.

 

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