Bob Davis: Fair points and civility
Apr 29, 2012 | 1893 views |  0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anyone who watches C-SPAN regularly is familiar with the words, “That’s a fair point.” The cable channel dedicated to Washington politics is a great place to watch debates on the issues of the day. Notice we aren’t saying the debates are always fair, or even honest.

“That’s a fair point” is one of those phrases politicians toss out frequently. What it should mean is that a debater is acknowledging to his opponent: Hey, my argument has flaws, and you’ve just exposed one that I can’t ignore, filibuster or misrepresent.

A fair point is one that must be considered. The nation is littered with policy decisions that went awry because one side or the other chose to ignore the opposition’s fair point.

In much of this era’s political conversation, “That’s a fair point” is a Washington nicety that has devolved into a cliché. What it too often means is: Thank goodness, you’ve stopped talking. Now I can proceed with my talking points and ignore the steaming plate of uncomfortable truth you’ve just set before me.

The 2012 election looks to be one more exercise in sticking to the script. The result if we proceed down that path will be more of the same. The nation will divide, one side seeing nothing positive in Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats and the other convinced that Mitt Romney and the electoral success of his fellow Republicans would be the ruin of the nation. No matter who wins in November an entire army of opponents will do everything it can to derail the president and his party.

They’ll not be satisfied with raising fair points, objections to policies based on uncomfortable and accurate details. Instead, they will seek to firmly apply the brakes for the next four years.

Think we exaggerate? Think again. Robert Draper’s new book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, which was previewed last week in the Huffington Post, tells of a meeting of key congressional Republicans the night of Obama’s inauguration. The topic: Using whatever means possible to thwart Obama’s presidency. “If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reportedly said. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

No one would be surprised if something similar happens if Romney is sworn in as the nation’s 45th president in January 2013.

The nation, it seems, is barely capable of rising above its politics. It’s not as if we don’t face thorny issues.

For several years, the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly known as the National Conference of Editorial Writers) has wrestled with this civic sickness through an effort now known as Civilitas AOJ. Its ambition is to raise the nation’s discourse. (Full disclosure: I am the organization’s vice president.)

It’s been a struggle for AOJ members to work out what we mean by civility. It does not mean stripping national arguments down to the point where nothing of consequence is ever mentioned. The point is to work through our challenges, weighing the options and reasoning together while accepting the facts before us.

As the Civilitas AOJ’s purpose statement notes, “Disrespect, dishonesty, libel and character assassination pollute the conversation, so many Americans see a serious problem with incivility broadly, not just with mere bad manners, in public life.”

At the heart of this effort is encouraging Americans to be good citizens, to lend their voices to the debate in ways that bring passion for their position but also respect for those who think differently.

This honest public weighing is important. No plan is perfect so it’s a good idea to consider it from all sides before implementation. Imagine an NFL football team selecting its top pick in last week’s draft without considering all the prospects before them. Not likely, is it? In fact, NFL teams are obsessive about testing college football players — by height, weight, strength, intelligence, personality, character and strengths and weaknesses on the field. Everything is considered, good and bad. Eventually a decision is made based on the best, most reliable information possible.

We should ask nothing less of our politics.

Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@annistonstar.com. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.
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