Toward a more civil community

Rob Jacques rang up this week asking if we’d give some play to a new initiative by Bainbridge Island Television to promote civil discourse. Yes – and we’ll even endorse it.

Rob Jacques rang up this week asking if we’d give some play to a new initiative by Bainbridge Island Television to promote civil discourse. Yes – and we’ll even endorse it.

Thanks to Rob for writing:

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Wenatchee is known for its apple crops, Leavenworth for its Bavarian motif, Poulsbo for its Norwegian heritage, and Bainbridge Island for its civility.

Uh…come again? What was that last one? Bainbridge Island is known for its civility? Sound far-fetched? Well, our neighbors at Bainbridge Island Television (BITV) don’t think so.

Early in 2007, BITV will launch a new initiative to make civility a new watchword in our day-to-day dealings with local government, businesses, citizen groups, community organizations…and each other. And why not? Certainly our island could do a lot worse than be recognized for treating its citizens and visitors alike politely and with respect. If each of us puts a little politeness and respect into our own dealings with each other, it may become surprisingly easy to bring deference and decorum to even the thorniest Bainbridge Island disagreements. Hold a door open for someone approaching behind you – even when it means that person will now be ahead of you in a line. Compliment people who do things to deserve it and smile at people who don’t. Make a conscious effort to see good in everyone’s motives and even go out of your way to give people’s questionable actions the benefit of the doubt. Practicing civility in our personal experiences can make good manners contagious.

It would be wonderful if, unlike the acrimonious political campaigns that polluted the media last fall, our next elections were marked by well-mannered debates about serious issues. Or think how intellectually rewarding it would be to listen to arguments about the Iraq War, stem cell research, abortion, civil rights, taxes, land use issues, and a host of other “hot button” topics – all carried on by mutually respectful people. Think of how refreshing it would be to attend one of our City Council meetings and see how everyone in the room – the general public included – focuses on arguing an issue instead of belittling the speaker or questioning other people’s motives. In argument after argument, from building docks to establishing open-water marinas, from managing commercial development to improving traffic flow around our island, we can learn to avoid firing off verbal salvos that characterize those who hold opposing views as hateful, self-serving, secret-agenda-wielding “enemies.”

Our late President Ford summed up the issue of civility when he said, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” Being civil doesn’t mean accepting another person’s argument. It means accepting another person’s right to argue. The principle of civility is one that requires us to treat someone who disagrees with us as an opponent…not an enemy. We can learn to lower the temperature of a debate by studying evidence people muster in support of their arguments and by understanding a position’s merit isn’t dependent on how closely the position resembles our own. We can have a spirited debate with others, end up still disagreeing, and cap the discussions by adjourning together to Bainbridge Bakers for hot coffee and apple crisp or C’est La Vie for a quick quiche or crepes.

The rewards of civility are great. Not only would we lower our blood pressure and daily stress levels, we would also greatly increase our learning because we could concentrate on the evidence presented in support of an argued position instead of wasting time on irrelevant distractions and hobgoblins we invent about the people who disagree with us.

Using its ability to connect with our whole community through cable networking and soon-to-be-operational streaming video, BITV wants to help us all become more collegial and respectful in our arguing. That’s why BITV will begin showing programs over cable and the Internet that focus on learning how to be civil in a contentious world, how to argue effectively to prove a point without belittling or insulting people who hold different views, as well as how to use argument to strengthen our own understanding of complicated issues.

Starting today, the folks at BITV want you to think about Bainbridge Island and civility. Watch for BITV’s new programming initiative that will take the first of many steps toward making our community well known not only for great schools, wonderful shops, and fine homes, but for a civility in discussion that should be a model for debating issues everywhere.

None of us likes to think that we need to change, but we all see things in others we wish they would change. Think about it: we really only need to change one person – just one person – for Bainbridge Island to become the nation’s most civil, best-mannered community. That one person is ourselves.

– Rob Jacques