Governance and the Lack of Civil Discourse

A Paper and Presentation for the Promise Governance Conference – Covina, CA – August 8-9, 2019.

Have we ever wondered what is at the heart of the political divide between the far right and far left in American politics? Is the far right really made up of greedy self interested, self-absorbed people, as they are sometimes described by the alt-left? Or, is the far left really made up of mush headed, soft thinking bleeding hearts, as they are sometimes described by the alt-right? Is there no way for these groups of people to come to consensus? Is it impossible for these diverse groups to understand each other and to work together for a common purpose? Must disagreements between opposing political or philosophical viewpoints only be solved with violence in words or behavior? 

As stated in the invitation to this conference, “governance should be the process of whereby interested parties interact at various levels, with the aim of reaching one or more mutual beneficial goals.” Therefore, effective discourse and problem-solving must lie at the heart of effective governance. However, it would seem in recent years there is a propensity for an increasing lack of civil discourse. Let’s briefly explore illustrations, the roots, and hopefully the potential steps to address this trend. The number of growing examples of the lack of civil discourse is occurring at the individual,community, business, institutional, and political levels. On June 22, 2018, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was ejected from the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia only because she worked for President Donald Trump as his Press Secretary.1 Sanders wrote, “Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS (President of the United States) and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.” Sanders’ waiter, Jaike Foley-Schultz, at the Red Hen commented on Facebook, “I just served Sarah Huckabee Sanders for a total of two minutes before my owner kicked her out along with seven of her other family members.” And, the Sanders incident occurred just days after Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to leave a Mexican restaurant in Washington, DC due to hecklers. 

While some were amazed by such treatment, others supported the Red Hen owner’s action by tweeting, “They don’t serve food to fascists? I will be promoting this restaurant to anyone I know in the area.” And name calling (i.e. “fascist”) to get your own political point across to someone else is far from effective, and is more emblematic of an emotional thought process, in contrast to a logical analysis. Somewhat famously now, around May 31, 2018, Samantha Bee, host of the “Full Frontal” TBS show, embraced vulgar name calling and foul language when she spoke of Ivanka Trump, daughter and advisor to President Donald Trump, “Let me just say, one mother to another, ‘Do something about your dad’s immigration policies, you feckless c–t. He listens to you. Put on something tight and low cut and tell your father to f—ing stop it. Tell him it was an Obama thing and see how it goes, okay?”2 Even though Bee later apologized for her actions, it reflects an emotional response to public policy which perhaps should best be handled analytically. 

This unwillingness to discuss sensitive issues neutrally and calmly does not bode well for our society and governance. As a first hand illustration, I have a personal friend in Boston, Massachusetts who is self-admittedly very “liberal” in his political philosophy. Let’s call him Robert for protection of identity. Over the years he and I have had some interesting conversations and I truly wanted to learn from him and understand his world point of view. To that end, I had been given 300 page book titled “Stealing America” by author Dinesh D’Souza, who immigrated to the USA from India with only $500 in his pocket and in 1991 became a naturalized citizen. I may not personally agree with all of his views, but I found his analysis of liberal and conservative political philosophy insightful – particularly in his sixth chapter. 

Over a period of weeks I told Robert of the book and inquired if he might be willing to read and discuss the book together so that I could learn his perceptions. He agreed and so I purchased a copy for him and gave it to him the next time I was in Boston. After chatting for a moment about our plan to jointly review the book, he took it, randomly opened it to a page mid-book, and read three sentences from the top right of the page. He then declared in a bold voice that he did not agree with those three sentences and therefore refused to read the book, despite our previous agreement! I was astonished and commented that while he might not agree with those three sentences (and that I did not agree with the entire text) that there would likely be something he would discover interesting or agreeable within the narrative. He flatly refused again and, unfortunately, that was the end of my attempt for us to learn from each other. I only share this true story to highlight the fact that when humans are unwilling to learn from each other, then communication, problem resolution, and effective governance will be hampered. 

However, such lack of willingness to discuss or learn from each other goes far beyond individual, personal interactions. On April 27, 2019, a small group of self-proclaimed white nationalist interrupted a Saturday author chat with chants and a megaphone at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC. The flash protest of ten people interrupted author Jonathan Metzl who was speaking to group of about 20 patrons on his book, “Dying of Whiteness,” with chants of “this is our land” for several minutes before leaving on their own accord.3 This behavior, however, is not restricted to one side of the political spectrum. A similar incident occurred just a month before at the same bookstore when Janet Napolitano, former Homeland Security Secretary, was interrupted by left-wing activists. 

Unfortunately, the freedom to have calm and civil discourse is being compromised by all sides. In part, this may be fostered by a sense of personal frustration as feeling unheard in the community dialogue. However, this type of behavior is actually encouraged by some political leaders. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (Democrat, California), who was upset with President Trump’s immigration policies, declared to a crowd of California supporters over the weekend of June 22, 2018 that, “Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. If you see anybody from that (Trump) cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”4 

And, one can become suspect by your opponents only because of whom you might interact. On May 11, 2019, Ronald Sullivan, Harvard University Law Professor and Dean of Winthrop House since 2009, was terminated because of student protests over the fact that he accepted the role of being part of Harvey Weinstein’s legal team to defend him on two current rape allegations.5 The two roles were perfectly allowable by the University and did not conflict with each other. However, it would appear that it is not “politically correct” to be associated with Mr. Weinstein who has not yet been convicted of any charges, and approximately fifty students protested for Sullivan’s removal. Harvard Law Professor emeritus, Alan Derschowitz, blasted the University by saying, “This may be the worst violation of academic freedom during my 55 year association with Harvard. Any student who feels ‘unsafe’ in the presence of Dean Sullivan and his wife does not belong at a university. … ‘Feeling unsafe’ is the new mantra of the new McCarthyism. It’s an excuse for firing anyone, from a Republican to a Muslim. … If the student who demanded the firing of Sullivan had been around in 1776, John Adams would have been fired as an author of the Declaration (of Independence) because he made them feel unsafe for representing the Brits accused of the Boston Massacre.” 

And it is easy to violate political correctness, and it can be used as a punishing stick by people who simply have anger in their souls! Of this, I can provide personal testimony. Within the rarefied air of the Governor’s Office of California and its Department of Finance, it seems at times that the political elite can lose contact with the realities of the average working person. Once in an effort to be polite, I advised a co-worker who was waiting for me to finish a job at a photocopy machine, “I’m almost done, ma’am, it’ll just be a moment.” Her immediate response was to berate me for the better part of a minute … “Don’t you know respect? Didn’t you have professional training? Don’t you know the platinum rule – treat others as they want to be treated?!” Well, I simply did not know that she may not like the term “ma’am”, while others may find it respectful. And, I simply did not feel respected by her, as a simple, “Thanks for letting me know. I can wait a moment. But, for the future, I do not care for the term “ma’am.” That would have been a productive, respectful interaction; rather than to take the occasion to bully and berate me. And, the sky almost fell one day while conducting managerial training, as I referred to an “oriental” concept. Nobody, including all of my Asian colleagues, had any problem with the term, except for one human resource staffer who you would have thought died of a heart attack. Sorry, I just missed the memo is all that I could say. No offense intended. 

And, in this day of political extremes, even if you sound as if you are attempting to be reasonable, your own friends may turn against you. One example of this is US Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California) was roundly criticized by her liberal friends when, upon President Trump’s election in 2016, she simply stated that she hopes he does well. Then, on August 29, 2017, she was booed at a San Francisco event of 800 attendees when she said that Trump could be a good president if he changed his direction. “Look, this man is going to be president, most likely for the rest of this term. I think we have to have some patience – it’s eight months into the tenure of the presidency.” Feinstein, who is the oldest Senator at age 84, was met with shouts amid boos of “Oh, come on!” and “No, no!”6 And Trump’s own comment of there are “very fine people on both sides” regarding the Charlottesville, Virginia violence on August 11 and 12, 2017, has been roundly chastised. However, is it not likely that there could be or are fine people on both sides?7 It seems that people hear what they want to hear and interpret things the way they want to interpret things. As I have often said, it is a life principle that people seem to find whatever they happen to be seeking. If you are looking for employees who are doing good work, you will find them. And if you are looking for employees doing poor work, you will find that also, although they are the same employees in the same circumstances. 

And, there is an additional phenomena which is gaining increasing popularity when debating public policy – that of the economic boycott. In May of this year, Georgia (among other states) passed legislation restricting the use of abortion. Rather quickly, the effort was announced by the filmmaking industry in Hollywood to boycott making all films within Georgia, which in past years has benefitted from the movie industry.8 On May 28, 2019, Netflix said it would withdraw its business from Georgia. Following this, several other companies, such as Disney, CBS, and Sony Pictures, announced that they would reevaluate their production plans in Georgia if the “heartbeat abortion” law was not overturned by the courts before it goes into effect in January 2020. Now, what is the relationship between an unborn child’s life and the making of movies? I do not see any nexus. In a nation where we have an established procedure for making public policy, it is simply saying that if I lose in the democratic process, then I will pout, yell, and scream in the corner – much as a child would. It is resorting to economic violence. It is declaring that, “I don’t like your policy, so I am going to bully or economically beat you up!” 

United States Senator Bernie Sanders (Democrat, Vermont) has recently been espousing the concepts of Democratic Socialism on the campaign trail for the 2020 Presidential Election9. For those who do not believe in those concepts, should they economically boycott Vermont? No more maple syrup? Because you disagree with others over a matter of public policy which is debated in the normal, democratic legislative process, should one attempt to bully or intimidate them economically? Now, I believe in vigorous debate, but when the final vote is taken, that’s the new law. And even then, citizens should vigorously debate if the law should be changed. However, intimidation – physically, verbally, economically, or otherwise – is not part of legitimate debate. It is intended as coercion to force others to accept your point of view. It hinders effective debate, rather than enhances it. And in effective debate, all parties should have open minds and hearts to learn from each other. 

Indeed, scandal itself has become a tool of bullying and intimidation, which the media and general public love. John Marini, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada and a Ph.D. of government from the Claremont Graduate School, noted in his September 11, 2018 address at Hillsdale College that, “Scandal can provide a way for defenders of the (political) status quo to undermine the legitimacy of those who have been elected on a platform of challenging the status quo.”10 In other words, scandal, or the pretense thereof, can be an intentional tool used by political opponents to further their aims. And, I have seen this in my own personal service in government. Words and actions taken out of context by the media or political opponents to undermine public policy, to say nothing of outright lies used to smear a reputation for someone else’s political gain. And, in the words of the 1962 western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the newspaper editor justified not publishing the truth in a sensitive political situation by saying, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In this age of misinformation, beware — the reader, the writer, the freeman, the free mind. 

As Leo Rosten noted in his address to the 1962 National Book Awards in New York City: “The most critical problem which free men face today is to get some of their co-citizens to listen – to listen to that which seems to threaten them. For the right to talk involves the duty to listen. We are raised so that we confuse a way of thinking with the way of thinking. We must try – desperately hard – to see things not as we are but as they are. The function of the thinker, the writer, the editor, — indeed the function of the free man and the free mind – is stubbornly and painfully to try to find truth – truth as it is, not as we want it to be, or hope to be, or prefer it to be.”11 

In 2016, a quiet pizzeria in Northwest Washington, DC became the focus of a nationwide hoax now known as the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory. Internet hoaxers alleged that the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, was the center of a child-sex ring run by Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as her former presidential campaign manager, John Podesta. The sex business was located in the basement of the restaurant, and the restaurant owner was slammed with hundreds of threats. And, on December 4, 2016, a shooting occurred when Edgar Welch drove from Salisbury, North Carolina, armed with a rifle and a revolver, to the Connecticut Avenue Northwest restaurant to investigate and save the children. Evidently well-intentioned, but misguided, Welch discharged his gun multiple times into a locked storage closet which he came upon. Fortunately, no one was injured, but Welch was sentenced to four years in prison. And, more recently, two years later, on January 23, 2019, there was an arson attempt in the same restaurant.12, 13 This is all so interesting because there was no child-sex ring. The restaurant does not even have a basement! Because of all of the misinformation and hysteria, I intentionally made a special trip myself to Comet Ping Pong in February 2017 to speak with the staff. I saw for myself that there was no basement and learned how the owner had to spend thousands of dollars to hire security guards to protect the establishment and its patrons. 

In my personal opinion, we should consider making intentional fake news illegal and criminal. In a society where “truth” should be the foundation for intelligent decisions and public policy, to intentionally create and spread false news is despicable. Fake news discourages civil discourse, and it can certainly be used to create political advantage. However, even prohibiting fake news would not prohibit people from acting foolishly. My experience has taught me to not jump to conclusions; if you can, to go see for yourself; and to withhold making a judgment until you have all of the information. So let us briefly recap our situation. First, governance requires problem solving among all parties. Second, problem solving requires understanding among all parties. Third, understanding requires meaningful dialog and communication among all parties. And it is at this third step were our process, due to the lack of civil discourse, is faltering. 

The third step is being inhibited and we have seen examples of this at the personal, community, institutional, corporate, and political levels. Situations where emotions override rational thinking. Situations where seemly one or another feels that they must win and others lose at all costs. Situations where coercion is justified. 

And, the impact of this breakdown in step three, the lack of civil discourse, is significant. The impact creates feelings of being inhibited or feeling suppressed. The inability to express ideas leads to less viable solutions to community problems. Ideas become diluted as sugar in saltwater. And, the lack of tolerance of other ideas generates even greater emotional hostility. Indeed, those that make civil discourse impossible, seemingly make violent revolution inevitable, which is an unfortunate turn of events for everyone. Perhaps if I yell louder than you, then I will be heard or win? This becomes the new mantra. If perhaps I can throw a tantrum to intimidate, bully, or coerce, then maybe I will be heard or win? Perhaps if I use economic, social or other pressure, I can shame you into submission to my will? Or, perhaps I can follow the legal maxim as coined by Carl Sandberg, “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.” However, it is a slippery slope, if we are tempted to believe that if you do not agree with me, then you must also hate me. For our duty is to understand each other, and never to resort to violence. In the words of Rosten, “We must learn to seek change without violence. Always change, and never violence – not even in words, much less than deeds. We must try to understand each other by reconciling ourselves to the fact that most of us never mature; we simply grow taller. We must meet fanaticism with courage, and idealism with caution. We must be skeptical of that which is promised, but not proven. We must be strong enough to be gentle.” And, as Stephen Covey well describes in his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”14, the fifth identified habit is that we must first seek to understand others, before helping them to understand ourselves.

So, while our process was derailed in the third stage above – understanding requires dialog and communication; we must look at the fourth and fifth steps for solutions and resolution. Fourth, dialog and communication requires trust. Fifth, trust requires relationship. And from my work in peace and reconciliation in various parts of the globe, sixth, relationship requires forgiveness. Seventh, forgiveness requires the ability to change, and eighth, the ability to change requires humility. Therefore, our most central, core problems facing us in reviving civil discourse include 1) personal character; 2) the self-control of emotional response to logical thought; and 3) to rid ourselves of fallacious thinking, which takes many forms, including (among others): • Attacking the person rather than his argument. (Ad Hominem), • Appealing to emotion, and • Hasty generalizations. And if we think that opposing sides are just too far removed from each other to ever come to consensus, yet alone friendship, let me refer you the true story of Ann Atwater and C.P.Ellis, as chronicled in the 2019 movie, “The Best of Enemies”15. Reluctantly, Atwater, known as “Roughhouse Annie”, a strong willed and tireless activist for the black community; and Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, North Caroline, agreed to co-chair a series of court-ordered mediation meetings regarding integrating Durham Schools in 1971. The story of how these natural arch-enemies became friends over a lifetime, as they developed respect and care for each other, is touching and inspirational. If they can accomplish this in the strained times of the 1970’s, then surely it can be done again … and again.

The owner of the Red Hen restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, later told the Washington Post, that when she decided to kick Sarah Huckabee Sanders out of her restaurant that “there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one.”16 However, in retrospect, rather than ejecting Sanders and her party from the restaurant after being seated only two minutes, would it not have been more effective to take the opportunity to have a brief, calm dialogue between the two women? How often would Wilkinson and Sanders have the opportunity to meet in person? Perhaps a meaningful relationship could have been built. It was likely a wasted opportunity due to an emotional reaction which was neither respectful nor caring.

At the root of all of these matters regarding uncivil discourse is human character, human foolishness, and human selfishness. As Galatians 5:19-21b (NIV) says in the New Testament, The acts of the flesh are obvious: ….(including) …. “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy …. , and the like.” In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit (verses 22-23) is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” And in verse 25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Let us all continually remember and practice that we all need God and the power of the Spirit to surpass the power of the flesh! And, let us take hope in our generation by generation battle for civil discourse within our society, the encouraging words of Oliver Wendell Holmes that, “The mind, once e x p a n d e d to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”

1 Denis Slattery, “Virginia restraurant refuses to serve White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders”, New York Daily News, June 23, 2018,
2 Megan Cerullo, “Samantha Bee Calls Ivanka Trump c-word on show, gets trashed by White House, sponsors”, New York Daily News, May 31, 2018
3 Marissa Lang, “Beyond Politics and Prose: White nationalist target bookstores, libraries in protests nationwide”, The Washington Post, April 29, 2019
4 Jennifer Calfas, “’They’re Not Welcome Anymore, Anywhere.’ Maxine Waters Tell Supporters to Confront Trump Officials”, Time, June 25, 2018
5 Talia Kaplan, “Alan Dershowitz slams Harvard’s decision to drop Weinstein lawyer as dean: ‘new McCarthyism’”, Fox News, May 12, 2019; and NEWSDAY, BBC World News, May 13, 2019
6 Casey Tolan, “Sen. Dianne Feinstein booed at San Francisco event after saying she hope Trump can change”, Bay Area News Group, August 29, 2017
7 Allan Smith, “Conway: Trump’s Charlottesville remarks ‘darn near perfection’”, NBC NEWS, April 28, 2019
8 Amanda Mull, “What Hollywood Boycotts Would Really Do to Georgia”, The Atlantic, June 5, 2019
9 Reid Epstein and Sydney Ember, “Bernie Sanders Calls His Brand of Socialism a Pathway to Beating Trump”, The New York Times, June 12, 2019
10 John Marini, “Politics by Other Means: The Use and Abuse of Scandal”, Imprimis, Hillsdale College, March 2019, Volume 48, Number 3
11 Leo Rosten, “On Finding Truth: Abandon the Strait Jacket of Conformity” Sunday Star, April 8, 1962 Text of Address at the National Book Awards in New York, New York.
12 Kath Smith, “’Pizzagate’ restaurant survives arson attempt and investigators have a suspect”, CBS, January 25, 2019
13 Fox News, “’Pizzagate’ shooter sentenced: What to know about the Comet Ping Pong conspiracies”, FOX, June 22, 2017 14 Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1990, Fireside of Simon & Schuster, New York, New York
15 Glenn McDonald and Drew Jackson, “’The Best of Enemies’ journey to the big screen is a ‘story that needs to be told’”, Raleigh News & Observer, March 29, 2019
16 Jennifer Calfas, “’They’re Not Welcome Anymore, Anywhere.’ Maxine Waters Tell Supporters to Confront Trump Officials”, Time, June 25, 2018
Copyright W. Bruce Lee, 2019; Duplication only with written permission.

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