Sunday, March 18 , 2018, 8:59 pm | Fair 53º


Demanding Civility in Public Discourse

Passionate disagreement has its place in politics, uncivil behavior does not.

“To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable.” — Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz.

A few weeks ago when I was speaking at a Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) board meeting, I had the unfamiliar experience of taking a position in agreement with that of Andy Caldwell, executive director of COLAB. Rarely do we, or our respective organizations, agree on anything.

Our agreement was about the need to balance jobs and housing across the county.

Unfortunately, this rare moment of agreement on an important issue was overshadowed by aggressive rhetoric. I was prepared to spend my three minutes speaking to the issue. Caldwell, on the other hand, spent most of his three minutes trashing Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum and the city of Santa Barbara.

When my turn came to speak, I couldn’t help taking note of the previous speaker’s insulting diatribe against Blum and the city she represents. I said we should be able to stick to the issues without personally attacking each other. Then I spent the rest of my time speaking about the need to balance jobs and housing.

What surprised me most about Caldwell’s inflammatory speech was that none of the elected officials in the room seemed to notice. No one suggested that he apologize to Blum, or apologized for him. No one emphasized the need for civil discourse in a civil society. No one reminded him that personal attacks are a logical fallacy and the lazy way to attempt to win an argument.

And yet I have heard several supervisors chide other public speakers when they become too disrespectful or uncivil in their comments — speakers who, unlike Caldwell, do not have a well-financed organization behind them, or a radio talk-show from which to deliver ill-tempered lectures.

Caldwell recently wrote a column for the Santa Maria Times called, amazingly enough, “When public officials duck discourse.” He was complaining because some public officials and candidates, such as Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and 3rd Supervisorial District candidate Doreen Farr, have refused to be guests on his radio talk show. Although I’m not a public official, he put me in the same category because I also refused to be on his show. He claims we are “ducking” his show because we cannot stand up to public scrutiny.

Once again Caldwell is resorting to insults and innuendo to make a point that he can’t win based on reason and logic. For instance, he admits that Capps has already appeared on his show. In fact, she frequently appears on talk shows and at public venues whenever possible. Her choice not to reappear on his show clearly has nothing to do with avoiding public scrutiny, but more likely has something to do with Caldwell and how he conducts his interviews.

I can’t speak for Capps or Farr, but the real reason that I and many others won’t go on Caldwell’s show is a matter of principle, because to do so would be a tacit acceptance of his attack politics. We cannot condone Caldwell’s uncivil public discourse and will not lend legitimacy to him or his show by agreeing to participate in his program.

Those of us who take part in the public arena have an obligation to respect and listen to one another, and agree to disagree if that is the case, rather than descend to personal insults. We also have an obligation to take a firm stand against the hateful, demeaning rhetoric that has too long dominated the community dialogue and sown seeds of distrust and division. And one way of doing that is by shunning uncivil behavior and its voices.

Until we demand civility in public discourse, we will never get it.

Deborah Brasket is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network  (SB CAN). Click here This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it to e-mail her or call 805.722.5094. This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.

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