It's Time to End Uncivil Discourse
As State Representative, I am accustomed to hearing from constituents as they present their views and positions on issues being addressed in Harrisburg and here at home. Some agree with me. Some do not. But, mostly, all make their points in a manner that is respectful and fair. I work hard to do the same in answering their concerns. It's called civil discourse, and it is one of the foundations of our representative democracy.
Unfortunately over the past few months – as we have seen arguments over government shutdowns in Washington, D.C., differences surrounding the recently enacted Transportation Funding package in Harrisburg, and now the passionate feelings over eminent domain issues in Phoenixville – it has become clear that too many have abandoned civil discourse in favor of uncivil speech and actions.
This speech and these actions do us no good. It forces people, who are otherwise normally reasonable, to abandon the idea of achieving pragmatic progress. It forces gridlock. It stops us from addressing truly important issues.
During the debate over the Transportation Funding package, I was accused in a Letter to the Editor of choosing my position based on a political pledge to a Washington, DC special interest group. The problem? I had never taken any such pledge (something that was easily verifiable with a simple internet search) and I had made it known publicly that my position came from surveying the people I represent. My attacker, however, had no problem simply submitting a lie to the newspaper. That's uncivil discourse.
I give my attacker respect for her position on the issue and her passion over it. I believe, however, her point could have been made in a way that was more respectful to both the public and me. Had she made her point this way, I believe it may also have been more effective for those she wished to persuade.
In Phoenixville, some individuals have responded with vitriol against a recent decision to utilize eminent domain – and their actions have once again brought uncivil discourse to the forefront.
These individuals basically shut down a public School Board meeting because they refused to follow some simple rules put in place to ensure every resident a chance to be heard. Rather than follow the rules for public comment in that meeting and make their opinions known, they hi-jacked the entire meeting and forced it to be temporarily halted.
How many other citizens – citizens whose opinions matter just as much – lost their chance to speak or gave up trying because of the actions of this unruly few? How many citizens who may have no ties to these people (but who share their views) are now seen as "rude" or "reckless" because of the actions of this uncivil group?
Some of those who oppose the eminent domain actions have even gone so far as to picket the homes of local school board members. Reports state that a very few even made threatening chants a part of their picketing effort.
The people who took this action seem to forget that these School Board members are still their neighbors, still parents and spouses, still people with regular jobs and the same everyday concerns as those who are picketing. The picketers forgot that these School Board members are volunteers trying to make their community better.
Who, I ask you, would be willing to volunteer for such a job in the future knowing this is the type of treatment you face when making an unpopular decision? This is the true cost of uncivil discourse: the loss of the time and talent of citizens willing to step forth and serve.
Let me be clear: I am in no way suggesting that citizens abandon making their voice heard, be it in favor or opposition to an issue. As the saying goes, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
I am just suggesting that all of us – every citizen and every elected official – would be better served saying what we must in a way that achieves civil discourse again. In this way, we can find our way to truly addressing issues rather than just fighting about them. That is a simple goal we should all strive to achieve if we truly care about making our community stronger.