significant risk that all participants will be tarred by the same brush. And many times the media “stokes the fires of negativ- ity” by emphasizing such attacks in their coverage rather than the issue itself. Weak as the case is, some make a case against civility. Some say civility just reinforces the status quo in terms of power rela- tionships. Or that what really matters is not who is more civil, but who wins. Tat is very simplistic and caters to our flawed character as human. We can be and should be better than that. Te quest for civility has merit for public officials. Martin

Luther King, Jr.’s observations are instructive: “In a neighbor- hood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults; but when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” King’s admonition to his listeners to set their standards of discourse high, irrespective of how others behave, is consis- tent with the quote from Gandhi, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Or as Mark Twain observed in “Pudd’nhead Wilson”: “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” It may be annoying at times, but a good example helps pull the rest of us in line. I don’t believe civility can be legislated any more than morality can be legislated. Laws can be enacted governing civility and morality, and people may pay the price for break- ing those laws. But people make a choice to be civil or not just like they make a choice to be a moral or immoral person. I agree with the Greek philosopher Aristotle who believed that virtuous behavior had to be voluntary and that civility is a form of virtuous behavior. Let me remind you what civility actually means. It’s some- times defined as simply being polite. While it can refer to politeness, it’s much more than that. Civility comes from the Latin root civilis, meaning “befitting a citizen.” Civility is the baseline of respect we owe one another in public life. So how do we achieve more civility in public discourse? Here are a few suggestions:

• Separate people from the problem. Recognize that oth- er thoughtful and caring people have different views on how best to address the problem. Focus on solutions that are most likely to be successful. Avoid resolving disputes on the basis of “us versus them” animosity and seek the relative merits of completing problem-solving strategies.

• Obtain the facts. Many public policy disputes involve factual disagreements that are amenable to resolution through some type of fact-finding process. Work together to resolve factual disagreements wherever possible. Tere are, of course, times when separate studies have conclud- ed “competing facts.” When this is true, contending par- ties need to publicly explain the reasoning behind their



differing interpretation of the factual information that is available. Tat can be done in a civil manner.

• Limit interpersonal misunderstandings. Make an honest and continuing effort to understand the views and reasoning of your opponents. As much as we want to believe that we are 100 percent correct about every- thing, we aren’t.

• Use fair processes. Genuinely solicit and consider public input. Make decisions on the basis of substan- tive arguments.

• Keep trying to persuade and allow yourself to be persuaded. One crucial element of civility is the recog- nition by conflicting parties that it is possible they are wrong and the policies advocated by their opponents are actually better. Seriously consider the persuasive arguments made by your opponents and explain your own position.

• Another strategy for civility is to identify the biggest redeeming quality of that person who’s always driv- ing you crazy. Keep it in mind the next time the two of you interact.

Before I close, I want to talk about one more thing —

Gadflies. Te connotation that comes with the term “gadfly” is not usually very becoming. But I want to look at them a little differently. Virtually every community has them: individuals who show up at every meeting to voice their complaints, often repetitiously and sometimes with a tenu- ous grip on reality and the facts. I don’t believe anyone has a magic solution to the problem that these individuals’ con- tributions to public meetings create, often by crowding out others who have more specific and constructive reasons for wanting to share their views with the state legislative commit- tee, the quorum court, the city council, the school board, or any public government meeting. In a book called “City Silly Hall,” written by City Manager Rich Holmer there is a chapter on gadflies. One particularly poignant account is of Jake, a longtime community resident who ultimately fell on hard times. Here’s an excerpt:

As for Jake, we saw less and less of him [over the years]. His attendance at council and historical society meetings became less frequent. He looked withered and thinner, many times un-shaven, and wearing the same wool shirt. Te chief had told me his officers had rousted him on more than one occa- sion for sleeping in the parks or in his truck. It was a crisp December night and I had just exited early from a transit tax meeting. I began the 10-mile drive

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