OP-ED: Civil discourse is no joke

Deborah Yonick Kalina
Codorus Township
Deborah Yonick

A Republican, a Democrat, a Green and a Libertarian are sitting around a table at the public library ...

While that may sound like the start of a joke, it’s actually the beginning of a community-building exercise we should look to replicate regularly throughout York County.

The Paul Smith Library and Rotary Club of Southern York County convened a panel of nearly a dozen neighbors of mixed political persuasions, ages, backgrounds, experiences and professions. District Judge Lindy Sweeney deserves a big shout-out for helping to assemble such a thoughtful group.

It was billed as an exercise in civil discourse, fittingly scheduled on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, and taking on four complex subjects all worthy of their own panel discussions: the Second Amendment, health care, immigration and college costs. Representing both the Paul Smith Library as a board member and the Rotary of Southern York County, George Lavery presided as a lively moderator.

The big takeaway from the engagement is that we agree more than we disagree.

Listening to the personal stories and information shared by the panelists melted away the monolithic views we have of one another when we label people. It was fascinating to follow the dialogue to see where we intersected. In 135 minutes, nearly a dozen people, discussing four weighty topics, found common ground to follow to solve problems with the collective good at heart.

But that is what civil discourse is about. It’s more than just being polite and respectful. Civil discourse is engagement in conversation intended to enhance our understanding of one another, with the goal of working toward innovative solutions that preserve the civic project. It is the social glue that binds us together into one community.

I was hopeful when I left the library. The engagement was exhilarating, and what we should be doing all the time — bringing our different experiences and ideas together to solve problems.

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Conversely, while this small group met to see how we could move forward together, more than 10,000 Pennsylvanians gathered at Giant Stadium in Hershey to take in the seeds of discord our president sows daily.

In a nearly 90-minute word salad, President Trump pushed conspiracy theories and lies, trashed law enforcement officials that aren’t blindly loyal to him, exhibited thuggish tendencies toward protesters, and made misogynistic remarks. He called the FBI scum; vetted news media dishonest, corrupt and fake; and Democrats radical, crazy, rabid partisans, and very bad people. He said that Democrats stand for crime, corruption and chaos. A variety of news outlets described the rally as Trump’s ugliest, most troubling performance yet.

Sharing the stage with this bully-in-chief were York County elected officials, including state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill and U.S. Reps. Scott Perry and Lloyd Smucker.

I couldn’t help but wonder how our legislators would’ve benefited from time spent engaging in civil discourse with their constituents at the library, than standing in silence while our president behaves in ways that prevent us from trading real ideas.

Most important to the exchange of ideas is exposing ourselves to people who think differently than we do. It requires we have the intellectual humility to be open to other ideas and willing to find common ground for solutions that benefit our community as a whole.  

I encourage the library system and Rotary clubs of York County to partner to deliver a civil discourse series that builds on the Paul Smith experience. And I root for our elected officials to lead by example in supporting behaviors that nurture, not erode our civil discourse.