Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 8:04 am | Fair 50º


Tim Durnin: Lamenting the End of Civil Discourse

It's time to rethink 'being right' and realize that violence just isn't worth it

I have been blessed to know many great men and women. Professor John Swanke, Ph.D., is among those. He was my first philosophy professor. The first day in my first philosophy course is forever forged in my memory because of Dr. Swanke.

Class has just begun and we are reviewing the syllabus. To my right, two kids are messing around, talking and writing on the desks and wall. Dr. Swanke takes exception. “What are you doing?” booms across the classroom and, in my memory, shakes the windows. Dr. Swanke has a big voice. There is no response. Louder this time, “I asked you, what you are doing? You can tell me. I saw it.” I feel the walls shake. Again, no response.

Dr. Swanke sits quietly for several minutes. There is not a sound in the room. He begins in a quiet, controlled tone. “One year, two months, 14 days and,” he pauses to look at his watch, “18 hours ago, my daughter was brutally murdered.”

He continues solemnly, “I don’t know who my daughter’s killer is, but I can tell you he started with small acts of disrespect like writing on desks and ignoring common courtesies. And then it grew to disrespecting people to the point that they became things.”

His raw emotion is evident now. Some of the students are tearing up as he finishes. “My sweet, lovely daughter Anne was just a thing to him, an object, something to be used and thrown away,” he pauses here, “and it all started with simple, inconsequential acts of disrespect and unkindness.” Dr. Swanke then gets up and leaves the class in stunned and reeling silence.

I have taken that lesson with me, shared it whenever I could. Over the course of the semester, the lesson was explained in much greater depth and context, and it settled in as one of my abiding truths. Civility and civil discourse go a long way to define our culture’s and the individual’s character.

Like Dr. Swanke, I mourn the loss of civility, of civil discourse. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, it seems more difficult to navigate the waters of civil discourse when the currents of incivility run so strong and deep.

Let me start with language. Profanity has so saturated our lexicon that most folks are completely unaware that one, they use it, and two, others might be offended by it. Going out to dinner, sitting in my own car at a traffic signal, even standing in line at Disneyland I have felt assaulted and insulted.

On the few occasions I have made some suggestion that perhaps the language is incongruent with the company (most often with my wife and children), I have been met with even more colorful and offensive expletives, even threats of physical violence.

Recently, my wife and daughters were waiting in line at the DMV. A middle-aged gentleman had a German shepherd (not a service animal) that attempted to bite two other patrons. When he was asked to take the dog outside after the second incident, the man yelled a string of high-level expletives that silenced the entire building and stunned the waiting crowd. What is one to do?

Bryan Stow and his family learned just how uncivil our world has become. Stow is the San Francisco Giants fan who was severely beaten outside Dodger Stadium. He has still not regained consciousness. It takes a special kind of ignorance and cowardice to reach this level of incivility. Increasingly we seem to find our way there.

Here is my limited and admittedly flawed contribution to reclaiming civil discourse. I think we need to rethink “being right.” It is terribly overrated and certainly strains civil exchange. In the end, if you want to be right, in your own world, you always are. Conversely, I find conceding, “You are right,” a powerful way to disarm an escalating argument. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it to go on.

Finally, I offer the six most powerful words in the English language. I am sorry. I was wrong. We should have required classes on these, demand daily practice. No six words have created more joy, repaired more relationships and mended more hurts. In the pursuit of civil discourse, no six words will take us further than these.

Click here to follow Stow’s progress or to make a donation to help with his medical care costs.

— Tim Durnin is a father, husband and writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for ideas, comments, discussion and criticism.

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