Executive Editor Jimmy Hart of the Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro) comments about the exciting level of civic involvement in the failed campaign to bring Bible Park USA to Rutherford County, but he also describes the uncivil nature of the debate.
But it seemed a "win at all cost" mentality developed among small, yet vocal factions of both groups, and what resulted was an atmosphere unbecoming a great Southern community in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
It's hard to do what Hart commends. I was rereading Robert's Rules this weekend to prepare for TEP's annual meeting, and I was struck by the number of safeguards there are in the rules to maintain not only order but civility. The rules, in other words, assume that the members of deliberative bodies would eat one another alive, left to their own devices.
Hart (and Robert, for that matter) would like us to debate the issues rather than the motives and character of those presenting the issues. But it seems difficult to do so in light of 19th and 20th century developments in high and low culture. Whether we are Marxists or not (are there any left?), we live in the wake of Marx's "false consciousness" thesis and Freud's discussion of repression and the role of the unconscious (sometimes capitalized). Feminist theory argues that "the personal is the political." Americans have also seen the rise of personal religious confessionalism in politics that makes public debate tricky. On the low side, we have the constant tabloid focus on the personal lives of politicians and endless stories about anything other than the issues themselves. Taken together, all of these developments shape citizens with a mixture of healthy skepticism and unhealthy suspicion.
We're unlikely to undo the intellectual and cultural forces of the last two centuries. They emerged with modern democracy. But calling people to a different kind of debate that brackets personalities is a good check on the worst tendencies of contemporary political discussion. There is increasing discussion of the "moderation" of comments in online forums. I doubt that the medium will allow those checks to be successful, but it's an experiment that's worth trying and so is the attempt to hold a civil public meeting on a contentious issue.