Thursday, January 20, 2011

Civil Discourse 101

Discourse is a form of communication, more commonly referred to as discussion or debate. These days, we seem to be really bad at it. Instead of exchanging ideas, we seem to be talking past each other.

Yelling. We hear a lot of it—as if loudness is required, in order to get the point across. The folks that are yelling seem really intent on being heard, but when their turn to listen comes along, the faculty of hearing seems missing. So, many exchanges are not exchanges at all, but shouting matches where the one with the highest decibel level wins. Yelling at and past one another, but neither side being heard.

Lost, in the yelling and escalating anger, are the issues, not to mention possible solutions.

Fifty years ago (nine months before I was born) on this date in 1961, John F. Kennedy gave his inauguration speech, of which I excerpt the following passages:
So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals…
Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah -- to "undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free."¹

And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor -- not a new balance of power, but a new world of law -- where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
Those words are as timely and fresh, today, as they were when they were first spoken. There is a lot more in that speech that makes it seem dated; the Cold War and balance of power in the world is clearly at issue. But if we focus on the bits that I have printed here, we should see that we have a lot of work to do; we have not passed "Go" with very much of Kennedy's list of goals.

A lot has happened in fifty years, but not the realization of that bright and shining dream. And in that time we have belabored much the issues that divide us, without ever realizing the great promise of justice, security and peace.

I ask you to remember the promise, and to renew it in your heart.

I ask us all to begin anew, to relearn civility, to renew our commitment to the dream, renew our efforts in civil dialogue, that we may finally, and as a united front, discover the path of action that will make the dream a reality.


Kennedy, John F. Inaugural Speech, 1961.

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