The Determined Choice
As I say farewell to my time as an elected official, I want to say thank you for your support and leave you with this hope for our community’s future. I was thinking mainly about discourse among political leaders when I wrote it, but it is just as true for all public conversations, including those around the dinner table, the clubhouse, or the office: The way elected officials and community leaders discuss issues relating to their decisions is of utmost importance.
To make the best decisions, they must be able to openly hear and understand opposing views. That doesn’t mean one must agree with the opposing viewpoint or in any way lessen conviction in one’s own position. Civility is not about changing your mind and agreeing with another person. Civility is having respect for another person as a human being, regardless of his or her views, and behaving in a way that reflects that respect. As Justice Anthony Kennedy has said, civility “has deep roots in the idea of respect for the individual…We are civil to each other because we respect one another’s aspirations and equal standing in a democratic society.”
Disagreement and debate are essential to good governance – they are how the proverbial “sausage” of democracy is made. Elected officials must be able to discuss the consequences, costs, and trade-offs of various policy options without making the disagreements personal. They are supposed to bring differing viewpoints on the issues and reach the best conclusions within the “marketplace of ideas.” In essence, we are elected to disagree and debate as a necessary part of making tough public decisions.
“Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.”
–George W. Bush
Strong communities are based upon mutual respect among all its members. Like good manners, maintaining civility in public discourse takes commitment, practice, and constant refinement. Over my years as an attorney and a public official, I have found the following to be useful concepts to keep in mind:
Did I listen to all the opposing party’s argument? If I stopped listening because I disagreed, I may have missed learning something useful or seen a flaw in my own argument. Or even a point of agreement, upon which we could begin to build consensus. Listening is an essential prerequisite for civil discourse. It encourages us to test our assumptions and understanding.
Am I taking the opposition’s disagreement personally? If so, why? Fear, anger, and resentment rarely help a person perform at their best. Instead, these caustic emotions can lead to overreaction, inefficient dialogue, and wasted time. Disagreement doesn’t make the opposition a bad person.
Have I caused the other side to lose face? Causing the opposition to feel humiliated or slighted in a public forum will likely generate the same in response. A lack of civility breeds a lack of civility; it’s a vicious cycle, and it obscures the importance of the issues at hand. Disagreeing without being disagreeable ensures the quality of the decision-making process.
Did I finish the discussion in a positive way? Did the discussion end with respect, shaking hands, or an acknowledgment of a good debate? The greatest of rivals – from Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neal to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – always ended their bouts well. Finishing well also requires moving on, with no ill will, in the event of a loss. Great athletes, entrepreneurs, and civic leaders understand the need to move forward and approach the next challenge with a fresh view and determination.
Maintaining civility in public discourse is a critical step in maintaining confidence in our political process. We may not agree that the majority’s decision was the best one, but we can still have confidence that the decision-making process was a good one.
I am very proud of how my colleagues and I debated some of the most controversial issues ever to face the Collier County Commission. Our response to the Covid-19 Pandemic and how best to protect our residents’ constitutional rights tested our collective commitment to civil discourse. It was often difficult and imperfect, but the commitment to keeping the discourse civil remained strong. Thank you to Commissioners Fiala, Locastro, McDaniel, Saunders, and Taylor for their commitments to civil discourse during very difficult and emotionally charged meetings.
I would also like to thank my Executive Coordinator, Angela Goodner, without whose tireless efforts and knowledge of the county none of these articles would have been possible or submitted timely. Finally, I would like to thank North Naples News Publisher, Joel Kessler, for providing me with the opportunity to provide some (hopefully) useful information and for some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had.