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Local view: Reasoned election discussions benefit everyone

When I moved into my home in Lakeside in 2004, some neighbors displayed lawn signs for Oberstar and others for Johnson. That same political season, some yards grew signs for Kerry-Edwards and others for Bush-Cheney.

Elizabeth J. Nelson

When I moved into my home in Lakeside in 2004, some neighbors displayed lawn signs for Oberstar and others for Johnson. That same political season, some yards grew signs for Kerry-Edwards and others for Bush-Cheney.

My initial response was to categorize my new neighbors according to their political expressions. But when I talked to them at our block party a few weeks later, I realized there was a lot more to them than their political beliefs. On many issues we found common ground. Or we at least found we could discuss with civility.

My mother used say, "Birds in their little nests agree." But is that civility? When we hear public outcry at the lack of civility, is it really the same as encouraging people simply to be silent or to agree? Of course not. The American experiment -- and an experiment it certainly is -- was founded on the notion that disagreement, grounded in reasoned argument and committed to evidence and support, improves the body politic.

These days, discussion of local, state and national controversies often decries the absence of civility. The charge invites the question of what civility is or what it ought to mean. The uncivil behaviors we lament are not characterized by sound reasoning and well-supported arguments but rather by invective and irrational self-indulgence. We may feel we are right and justified to give voice to angry impulses, with name-calling, for example. But incivility ultimately costs us all.

Last summer, the shutdown of Minnesota state government, prompted by an impasse over the state budget, cost the state tens of millions of dollars. Estimates varied, sometimes wildly. But no one disputed the state paid a huge price when it couldn't sell fishing licenses, state park permits and lottery tickets in the middle of the summer tourism season. More significant, perhaps, was the public perception nationwide of Minnesota as a state that couldn't get its act together.

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Likewise, Congress has been occupied several times in the past year with last-minute wrangling over budget issues that threatened a shutdown of the federal government. Think of all the time, effort and money that went into preparing for those shutdowns with so much real work that needed to be done.

Last fall's races for Duluth mayor, City Council and School Board were most notable for what didn't happen. Some races, including for mayor, went uncontested. The challenges facing elected leaders at all levels of government are daunting these days. But many believe incivility in political discourse left uncontested races even in Duluth, a city that prides itself in a historically high level of civic engagement.

With the upcoming election season, Minnesotans will address such high-emotion issues as gay and lesbian marriage and voter-identification policies. How are we to participate as citizens and political leaders in a way that does not frustrate free discourse but that also does not result in the kind of debacle more characteristic of a mob than a democracy?

This is why some of us are revisiting Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project. A 2003 initiative of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, Speak Your Peace is a community resource for building civic engagement, offering basic tools for facilitating civil discussion and responsible participation. In recent weeks, the Community Foundation has been fielding calls from folks all over the country interested in reviving Speak Your Peace because they think it is needed.

In coming months, Speak Your Peace will be involved in many activities in the Twin Ports, including offering tools to people organizing political debates, maintaining an ongoing presence in the News Tribune by offering points of view from community members, developing civility training for participants in local discussions and hosting public conversations about civility.

Civility is not just enacting "Minnesota Nice," often a synonym for politeness or conflict avoidance. Civility is characterized by passionate argument, supported by evidence available to all, balanced by careful listening to opponents and conducted within a structure in which all voices are allowed to be heard -- even those with which we disagree profoundly. The nature of our electoral process ensures that some positions will prevail and some will not. But growth through disagreement is essential to our political system.

In the 16th century, Peter Wentworth, a member of the British Parliament, challenged Queen Elizabeth's right to impose limits on what topics Parliament might be allowed to deliberate, claiming that difference of opinion among the loyal opposition was critical to representatives' ability to serve the people and the crown.

And in 1801, Thomas Jefferson expressed a similar belief when he wrote, "Differences, when permitted, as in this happy country, to purify themselves by free discussion, are but as passing clouds overspreading our land transiently and leaving our horizon more bright and serene." This notion that communities benefit from reasoned discussion of differences of opinion is one that Americans celebrate to this day.

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Political lawn signs are sure to bloom in the next few months. When they do, I will remind myself that we can discuss, argue and ultimately agree to disagree. Loyal opposition is not silent. Just civil.

Elizabeth J. Nelson is an associate professor and the head of the department of communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Cartoonist's view on election civility

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