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The Value of Civil Discourse

October 25, 2010

It’s been an interesting week since my last column, when I responded to an angry letter to the editor. What’s been interesting is my own reaction to my response.

No matter how valid my arguments, I had to wonder why I didn’t let the words of an unhappy person go by. Was I hurt, offended, what?

After filtering and re-filtering my reactions to the letter, what remained was indignation. There was no escaping anger. I might have distanced myself from it, but it was still a shadow over my keyboard.

No matter how correct I might have been in my column, I would have preferred a full measure of equanimity before writing.

Don’t worry—I’m not going to propose that I never feel anger again. Very few people have ever accomplished that. Anger is a source of great energy, a wonderful motivator for getting things done.

But the letter and my response provides a great opportunity to examine equanimity.

Instead of adding to the general din of indignation that drowns our civic discourse, what might have been a better response? Silence?

Probably. I doubt I changed one vote with last week’s column. At this point in the election season, the work should be done.

But, really, the work is never done. My frustration with the blunt anger clouding our culture would be better directed at some improvement. Any improvement. It’s pointless merely to raise my mark higher on the fire hydrant.

The Tea-Party-ish anger that is making me angry is caused by real issues. If Douglas Bruce’s elective surgeries (60/61/101) aren’t a good answer—and they’re not—what is?

It’s a helpless feeling to stare at Big Government and Big Business side by side, but there is a place to start.

What is equanimity? One salient feature of it is acceptance. The acceptance I mean does not imply helplessness or timidity. Rather, it is a quality of our own reaction to how things are. It doesn’t mean you can’t change things, but it allows a more skillful response than mere rage or fear.

An unfortunate consequence of our information age is something called “accidental extremism.” In the age of the Internet, the iPod, and hundreds of TV stations, we customize our own experiences.

As a consequence, we can successfully avoid more of the things we dislike and have more of the things we like. We never have to hear a dissenting opinion if we don’t want to, and who wants to? More people drift away from the center without ever feeling the tide.

We never have to eat our vegetables again. Nobody can make us. We are less participants in civil society and more consumers, eating all the fat, sugar, and salt we want.

Anger can be like potato chips—soon we’re taking mouthfuls without noticing, touching everything with greasy fingers.

We practice democratic behavior less and less. We’re oil and water. Us vs. Them.

Cultivation of equanimity would have real consequences. We would respond less to the kind of discourse we have today. We would change the quality of our public discourse by not reacting to the unhelpful kind and instead creating a helpful kind.

Wishful thinking? The ignorance I see in others is merely a version of the ignorance in myself. None of us know enough. Perhaps we will rediscover the value of civil discourse.

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