When he was asked about policy disagreements, former Indiana Senator Dick Lugar had a favorite saying: “That’s something about which reasonable people can disagree.”
That attitude–that recognition that well-meaning people can come to different conclusions–is the foundation of civil discourse and democratic deliberation. Unfortunately, Americans have lost that essential insight (along with the reasonable GOP to which Lugar belonged).
What triggered this recollection was a distasteful display at a recent meeting of the Indianapolis Public School Board. (In the interests of full disclosure, our daughter is a member of that Board, which also includes a former student of mine.)
Serving on a school board, or City Council, or on one of the City’s many boards and commissions is often a (thankless) labor of love, undertaken by people who care deeply about the missions of those bodies and who spend innumerable hours reviewing reports and budgets and meeting with concerned citizens. That doesn’t mean that every decision they make is the right one, or the best that could be made–but in most instances, those decisions have been made in good faith after many hours of weighing the available information and debating alternatives.
Like many other urban districts, IPS educates significantly fewer students than it used to. In 1968, the district’s high school enrollment was 26,107; this year, it is 5,352. The current capacity of the seven high school buildings it operates is 14,450–nearly three times the number of students attending them. The money spent operating and maintaining buildings with so much excess capacity could be better spent improving classroom performance, and the Board has recently faced up to the necessity of closing three of its underused schools.
Such decisions are always difficult and contentious.
The Board has scheduled meetings around the district to explain its deliberations and to hear community responses to the planned closures. At its most recent meeting, members heard from a self-identified “urban education expert” who holds an academic appointment at a local university. This individual has testified at previous Board meetings, and his presentations have been consistently arrogant and accusatory: he has lectured the Board that it is “amateurish,” accused members of being “bought and paid for,” and characterized their elections as “undemocratic.” Rather than a courteous sharing of perspective or evidence, he has delivered boorish, self-righteous rants–the sorts of performances that give academics a bad name.
He outdid himself at the recent meeting. Board members had ulterior motives; board members hadn’t really looked at alternatives; the pending closures would ruin the lives of students whose schools were being closed. (I’m not making this up.) He topped it off by telling the white members of the Board they were racists. (He’s white.) He rarely looked at the Board during this extended diatribe; instead, he aimed his rhetoric at the largely African-American attendees who were clearly his real audience.
Not exactly how one wins friends and influences decision-makers.
I don’t understand people who behave this way. I assume–perhaps naively–that people attend and testify at public meetings in order to influence policy, to offer perspectives that may not have been considered or pose questions that might not have been asked.
Telling policymakers that they are corrupt, racist ignoramuses who don’t know as much as you do is not a strategy likely to persuade them to your point of view, and it certainly isn’t the evidence-based, informative testimony we should expect from an “expert.” (It’s worth noting that, in the testimony I reviewed, he offered absolutely no alternative proposals or constructive suggestions. Just insults.)
If this episode of incivility was an anomaly, it wouldn’t merit a blog post, but such behaviors have become far too common in our toxic political age. Policy differences are no longer issues about which reasonable people can differ; instead, they are showdowns between good and evil. People with whom we disagree can’t simply be wrong, they must be bigoted or “bought.”
This sort of indiscriminate nastiness is deeply corrosive. When everyone who comes to a controversial conclusion is labeled a corrupt racist, we lose the ability to identify people who truly are those things. Voters become cynical about our governing institutions, and public-spirited people–the very people we most need to involve in local government– retreat from public service.
I don’t know how we restore civility to public debate, but we need to figure it out. Sooner, rather than later.