Let’s move toward a more civil debate

After so many years of apathy toward politics, it’s a breath of fresh air to see so many people engaging with their federal representative on matters important to them. We hope people keep it up.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik’s campaign staff recently rallied supporters to “fight back” against “reprehensible” members of the “radical left” who protested recently outside her limited-access television forum at Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh. It’s unfair to paint all the protesters with the same brush since each carried his or her own message.

There were, however, some objectionable signs. Calling Stefanik an “angel of death” and carrying a mock coffin were overboard reactions to the Republican health care bill she voted for. We disagree with it, too, but to paint her as a killer goes too far. She’s a politician who, in a pinch, voted with the party of the majority that elected her — nothing outrageous about that.

Americans have the right and even the duty to voice displeasure with their government. Our democratic republic is at its best when those on opposite sides of an issue have a vigorous debate before arriving at a decision. But they don’t need to be jerks about it.

It’s a divisive time. Political differences have become wider of late. Maybe this will work itself out; the U.S. has survived such times before. But if we continue to widen this gap much more, that path could lead to civil war, which would be worse than almost any potential outcome political partisans fear.

This weekend is a special time to recall that. Memorial Day, Monday, was originally set aside to remember how Americans slaughtered hundreds of thousands of each other between 1861 and 1865.

We certainly don’t all have to agree on how to run the country, but we do have to live with each other. We have to tolerate each other. We have to respect each other’s right to exist. We do, in fact, share this place, and to write each other off is to deny reality.

So as people continue to speak up for whatever direction they think is right, we ask them to be civil. Political outrage, so common these days, does not give one an anything-goes free pass. Discipline and human decency are especially needed in our politics now. Some day, we may need these fellow humans we currently find objectionable.

Here are a couple of ways people can argue without burning bridges.

One is by reviving the classic art of debate. Now would be a good time for high schools and colleges to start debate clubs or teams, in which they discuss thorny issues by first researching facts and then following fair rules of order. These days, sadly, when many people hear the word “debate,” they think of the chaotic, childish, mean-spirited, un-factual presidential insult-fests of last year, which were a true travesty.

Another way is by moving from resentment to gratitude, an idea we picked up from Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian (1932-1996).

“My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy,” Nouwen wrote in “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers and Sons” (1992).

Resentment pops into our minds all the time. It’s what makes us feel sorry for ourselves, irritated or angry at others, or feeling like it’s our turn. A religious person such as Nouwen might call it the subtle voice of the devil. Whether you believe that or not, resentment is a temptation that leads to no good. It blocks, entangles and exhausts us.

What dissolves resentment, Nouwen said, is its opposite, gratitude — not just occasional thank-yous but a persistent state of appreciation of the people and world around us, rather than constantly focusing on ourselves.

That rings true to us. We, like many, need a lot of help with it in our personal lives.

Therefore, in our daily interactions as well as in our politics, let’s applaud those on any side of the political aisle who make their points without yelling, insulting or interrupting others. It would be a weak world if we all agreed, but it will be a violent one if we don’t make concerted efforts to live with each other.

Discourse is important, but civil discourse is more productive.