Honesty, Diplomacy, Civility (a late night id discourse)

Duluth has an active arm of the civility police out on the prowl hectoring opinionated folks about who and how they hector. My old parent volunteer colleague, Anita Stech, from my Chester Park PTA days is one of their champions. Anita’s daughters and my children were part of the same cohort. By the time I made it onto the School Board Anita was an advocate for creating women’s hockey in the Duluth Schools and treating it with something approaching parity to boy’s hockey. So, Anita knows something about effective advocacy. Go Hounds!

I think I know what prompted the Civility project in Duluth. It was a general sense that talk radio politics, a la Rush Limbaugh, had taken a mean spirited grip on our public spaces and more particularly that local debates especially the one over the Red Plan locally mirrored that grumpy ethic. As a leading critic of the Red Plan, and specifically how it was implemented without a vote, I can’t throw myself completely at the mercy of the civility police’s arguments.

I had some hot meetings myself in my eight years on the School Board. After we approved Edison charters there was a counter move from the teachers to scotch it. That resulted in four new anti-charter members of the school board and four years worth of 5-4 votes on the board. We came close to a teacher’s strike in 98. In 2001 a thousand angry parents flooded the auditorium of Ordean Middle School to rage at the Board for a DNT story saying we were about to close five elementary schools. (that was partly the result of our superintendent picking a fight with the paper over easy access to internal information. I didn’t blame the Trib and missed that investigative spirit when Keith Dixon sprinkled red pixie dust over Duluth) And who could forget the brouhaha over the termination of a successful East High hockey coach? I know I’ll still be having nightmares over that on my death bed.

I always used to excuse some of the excessive things said to the School Board in those years with my patented line, “If we can’t be passionate about our children, what can we be passionate about? That’s how I approached the subject of dissent during my time on the other side of the School Board’s decision making with the Red Plan. I stayed pretty cool and collected but some of my allies got a little hot and I couldn’t blame them. I figured my logical approach to challenging Red Plan claims was the best way to steer an often unsteerable mass of Red Plan critics. I may have resorted to some hyperbole as Karl wrote and I did certainly use metaphor to make my points. I know that a few damn’s and hell’s can be found in the millions of words I penned in LincolnDemocrat during the struggle and its aftermath.

I accept the appeal of the Civility police but I’m called by a much more ancient appeal, one my ex-sailor Dad handed me when I was in fifth grade and had started swearing up a storm. Shortly after I fell and skinned my knees walking in our alley with my Mom and let loose a volley of colorful epithets and attracted all the neighbor women to their back fences and embarassed my Mom my Dad had a talk with me. He told me that he had no objection to swearing. (the old salt in him couldn’t have been taken seriously had he said anything to the contrary) He described swearing as a useful tool that could be abused to the point of uselessness. He told me that people who swear too often are ignored much like the boy who cried wolf. On the other hand, he told me, there are times when you really need to express your outrage and a potent curse will get you the attention your point of view deserves.

I woke up this morning thinking about how unhelpful it would be if the civility police flagged a recent post in which I said Art Johnston should go to hell. I’ve been thinking since a rare agate hunt on Park Point yesterday that I should change “hell” to “H E double toothpicks.” Its the same thing, sort of. So, I crawled out of bed at 3:30 and looked it up. I’d written “Art can go to Hell.” the double toothpicks didn’t fit that sentence felicitously so I just changed it to “…go to Heck.”

Then I skimmed the whole post and saw another hell in it. Sheesh. That was enough amending to please the Civility Police. I let that epithet stand. Maybe I do swear as much as my family says I do.

I coined another line in my campaign website. “Diplomacy is good policy, Honesty is the best policy.” I think that is self explanatory. What this late night ramble concerns is Civility’s place among these other qualities in public discourse.

I’m guessing here but I think civil or civility comes from the latin word civitas. [the definition can be found at end of this ramble] It also is the root of civilian which is understood as the opposite of military. In the military you are part of a machine and must live by pretty constricted rules. As a civilian you are on your own. There are rules of society you must abide by or face the consequences but you have much more freedom outside the military. If you doubt this just ask a veteran.

In civilian life we all have to figure out how to get along together without being told what to do by our superior officers. We create our own ranks in civilian life. A former private could rise to become a captain of industry and hire the General who once commanded his division. Its a trickier world when military order breaks down.

When I was growing up I knew the word “civil” had something to do with correct behavior. I also had the sense that it was not an affectionate word. “Keep a civil tongue in your mouth.” was a sentence I heard snapped at cheeky children. The tone in such a command is always stern like an order a commanding officer would bark out. To be civil is to be correct and deferential it is not being nice or friendly. I think that’s why a call to be civil puts me off.

During the Red Plan debate victims of the plan, people who’s vote was stolen, who’s schools were being closed, who’s children were being moved willy nilly while teachers were being laid off, were legitimately angry. They had a right, a responsibility even, to express their pain in the most effective and cogent way possible. The civility police seemed completely indifferent to this need. They seemed to demand a civil tongue and appeared to confuse the civil tongue with the singing of Kumbayah. I likened this expectation hyperbolic-ally to telling a rape victim to just get over it. That may be an exaggeration but its necessary to know if you want to understand why the levy referendums are walking on thin ice today. People remember their concerns being dismissed followed by the chastisement that they were too loud, too emotional, too late. Winning a yes from such voters will take a deft argument. (I think I’ve been making some)

I think “civility” was used as a means to suppress public discourse in Duluth not promote it.

I appreciate genuine civility. I prefer to keep a civil tongue but I don’t turn the other cheek when someone beats the double toothpicks out of me by calling my millions of words in the blog “bullshit,” or writing a column just before an election telling readers that my single use of the word “dammit” in a speech encouraging the School Board to give a levy referendum to the voters was a “string of profanity,” or that my willingness to play nice with the 4 in our 5-4 school board votes was an example of my being an AC DC politician. (That was heavy metal argot for bisexuality). I beat the hell out of all three of those people as well as a school board “colleague” who kept telling friends mean things to write in letters to the editor about me so that his/her hands could avoid the taint of attacking me. I’m not civil to people who are not civil to me.

Civility to me is the least we can do and as such I don’t rank it very high as an attribute of civil society or the human spirit. Diplomacy is a step up but it often subverts the truth by ignoring it for the sake of getting along. I much prefer Honesty which can lead people into headlong conflict as they argue over what is true or not. Still, I hold it in higher esteem than either civility or diplomacy.

Karl talked about ego in his post describing me. I have it in spades. I think there is a superior quality that can be called on to mediate disputes than civility. Its humility.

Humility has other words that feed off its root. There is humiliation a sting much to be avoided. That’s when someone else forces a person to bend at the knees against their will. Humility is when a person bends at the knees of their own accord. Its a confession of fallibility not submission to the more powerful entity. Those who are humble have humility. It is important not to confuse humility with pliability. Those who are humble often have ideals made out of steel and will stand up for their ideals often at great peril. Humility has nothing to do with cowardliness just as its opposite arrogance has nothing to do with bravery.

In Duluth’s civility wars I’ve had the impression that the idea of civility has been used as the weapon of the powerful whose upper hand gave us the Red Plan. The demand for civility has been an attempt to bend the knees of angry people against their will. To restrict their voice by a kind of shaming. Its not a call that much appeals to me.

If instead those powerful people appealed to me by asking that I approach controversial topics with some humility and an admission of fallibility I would have readily agreed had they had done the same. In fact I told people in private conversation that I often wondered if my opposition to the Red Plan was fated to make Duluth a worse place without the nice schools it deserves. By the same token I never heard Red Planners second guess their new schools. Instead they were the omelette that Joseph Stalin told us we couldn’t have without cracking a few eggs. Joseph Stalin! Now there’s a man who knew how to enforce civility. No one dared to challenge Uncle Joe except Trotsky and he paid the price in a Mexican exile.

Now we have little choice. Our knees were bent against our will. We have new schools, Stalin’s omelette. Our humble requests for a smaller more affordable plan were ignored and sixty million added to it. We will be paying for this for twenty years. A half billion dollars of spending. Is it really uncivil of me to make these observations or to remark that Nancy Nilsen’s brave assurance we would soon have five million in savings to pour into our classrooms was bunk?

I’ll still toss out a couple oaths as I try to garnish the omelette I never ordered. I just hope the civility police who want a better world cut me a little slack and ponder the limitations of their prized virtue the civil tongue. That might require a little humility.

I just checked the definition of Civitas. I was reluctant to guess citizenship but that is essentially the meaning:

civ·i·tas [siv-i-tas; Latin kee-wi-tahs] Show IPA
noun, plural civ·i·ta·tes [siv-i-tey-teez; Latin kee-wi-tah-teys] Show IPA .
1.
the body of citizens who constitute a state, especially a city-state, commonwealth, or the like.
2.
citizenship, especially as imparting shared responsibility, a common purpose, and sense of community

To the extent that civility promotes a common purpose I’m all for it. That’s definition # 2. To the extent that the state enforces unanimity through uniformity I’ve got little interest in it. That could be read into definition # 1. That was citizenship in Stalin’s Russia and how he got his common purpose.