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Seeking Civil Society

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

I was recently at a council meeting where, during public comments, several individuals targeted specific councilmembers with abusive comments. It disturbed me at the time and I’ve been thinking about it since then.

As a kid, I was taught that if I couldn’t say something nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all. Wow, how times have changed. Our current political campaign, television & radio commentators and internet trolls are all, in my opinion, part of the lasting effect of the Vietnam War protests. Sure, we have always had an issue with civility in politics; but, now, we have a widespread societal problem with civility that is a direct result of the turmoil caused by that War. Whether the protests were valid or not, is not the purpose of this article. I happened to believe the protests were valid. When my fellow GIs in Nam were critical of the kids protesting at home, I reminded them that we were there fighting to protect that right. Unfortunately, the concept of disruptive and abusive protesting has permeated all parts of our culture.

So, like all good Americans who wait for a crisis to act, I’m suggesting that the loss of civility in our society has reached crisis stage. As a part of the solution, to address how I got riled up, I would like to propose that each city adopt the following policy:

“The opinions of our citizens will frequently conflict, and the City Council will not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive. Nor, as a general rule, will the City Council intervene to enforce social standards of civility. There are, however, some circumstances during public comments in which behavior so violates our community’s standards that formal intervention may be appropriate. The City Council may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of City Council meetings. To implement this policy, the Mayor or Acting Mayor, may request the speaker to be civil, may terminate the remainder of the speaker’s time or may have the individual removed from the council chambers.”

I liberally borrowed the above structure from the policy adopted by my alma mater to address protests on campus. The goal was not to eliminate protests but to require that they be civil and allow all opinions to be expressed, a la Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

It wouldn’t hurt if we could also teach our kids that if they can’t say something nice, maybe they should keep their opinion to themselves. Just hoping.

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