Project Civil Discourse

While it appears that the motivation of the man who murdered six people and injured Congresswoman Giffords in Arizona last month derived from inadequately treated mental illness, it did spark an interesting debate. The leaders of our government and the mass media are asking themselves if the political discourse has become too toxic. Even if the shooting wasn’t some response to the negative rhetoric, the collective imagination recognized that it could have been. Some know that they have been playing fast and loose with civility, while others are clearly in denial.

It is difficult to hold any faith that the mainstream media and their pundits will recognize their complicity in nurturing a negative echo chamber. It is doubtful that they will address it in any meaningful way and the topic has, for the most part, already passed out of the collective news cycle memory. For government officials, there may be long term hope if the people and those who advocate for a more just society are prepared to make civility a priority and act with those values in mind.

As we settle into 2011, San Francisco could be in a position to become a leader of civil political discourse. What, it isn’t already? San Francisco has a long and colorful history of rough politics, including the dubious resolutions of debate by duels, violent intimidation, riot and assassination. Things may seem tame in comparison right now, but politics remain a popular full contact sport in San Francisco. That said, with a new Mayor and several new faces on the Board of Supervisors, many of the dominant personalities and their conflicts have become San Francisco lore.

While there will never be a lack of passion, nor differing point of views in San Francisco, there is an opportunity for the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club to lead efforts that encourage, recognize and reward new leaders locally and beyond for the civil resolution of differences. As politically interested citizens, professionals and public servants, members of Alice probably feel familiarity with the public event where the Tucson shooting took place. It could have happened in any district or any city. An organization made stronger by never backing down on core values of equality while developing extensive coalitions, Alice shows by example how civil discourse is effective.

Owen Stephens,
Media and Technology Committee

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