The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Beka Compton
The Times 

Let's all be civil

Jim Peitersen, a History and Politics instructor at Walla Walla Community College, recently gave a talk at the Dayton Memorial Library. The talk focused on civil discourse, and how to model behaviors to encourage constructive discussion.

 

November 21, 2019



Politics can be a tough subject to talk about, regardless of where one falls on the political scale. As tough as it can be, politically-focused discussion is necessary, and an important part of our society. Jim Peitersen, a History and Politics college instructor for 23 years, who currently teaches at Walla Walla Community College, spoke to a crowd of roughly 30 people at the Dayton Memorial Library on Thursday at the Big Ideas talk, and left listeners with some great tips on how to discuss touchy topics. The talk was hosted by the Dayton Memorial Library, in partnership with the Port of Columbia.

The talk started off with a brief clip from Yaffa Frederick’s Welcome to the Fractured States of America. The video pointed out some scary statistics: ten years ago, Democrat and Republican parties agreed on three out of the top five most important topics. Today, they don’t agree on any of them, highlighting that the parties are just continuing to grow apart… which is not a healthy trend, especially as we approach an election year. Politics have become a stressful topic for an alarmingly high number of people all the way across the political spectrum.

So, why is civil discourse important? Democracies are only effective when the people are engaged; and without conversation, and the skills to hold constructive conversations with people of all views, we are not engaged. Discussion is crucial to finding and solving problems, to holding our government accountable, and to making our world go round.

What do we owe the downfall of skills to? Many, many factors have contributed to the decline of our conversations. Education, or lack thereof, plays a major part. Oftentimes a person sees a headline on Facebook, and takes it as it is. Entertainment news sources, like social media, are not completely reliable. While social media outlets can provide a start, it is our responsibility to explore and fact check. Peitersen suggested going to foreign outlets, like German news sources, or the BBC, which are known for having real facts and news.

There has been a growing trend of personal isolation, as well. People have become busier and busier, whether it be school, work, sporting events or other activities; they are simply running out of time to socialize. In turn, many people have fallen out of touch with their communication skills. People are becoming less comfortable with social settings.

Pietersen pointed out that the dialogue begins at home. Whether you’re discussing a major topic or you are talking about the upcoming levy; you are talking politics, and your children are watching and learning. Learning how to partake in civil discourse often happens at the dinner table. Discussing these topics, and modelling positive behavior, is a healthy practice.

Peitersen noted that he started to notice a decline in communication about 10 years ago in his classroom. He makes it a point to separate his class into groups, and talk about tough political subjects. Students used to engage with each other without hesitation. He mentioned that recently, he has noticed the students struggling to get going on the topics.

The concept of “social glue” was also discussed. Peitersen asked everyone to stop and think about local community service clubs, like the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. The Waitsburg and Dayton communities are very lucky to have the involvement they do in these clubs, but it would be unfair to say that there are as many people willing and able as there were in years past. The clubs and groups do not need to be politically charged in order to play a part. Simply spending time with people from all backgrounds and all viewpoints, and, whether knowingly or unknowingly, tends to broaden one’s thinking. The so-called “social glue” is not as strong as it used to be, and it is showing.

Party divide and purity has played a massive downfall in our ability to discuss important items, as well. Parties are starting to demand an open-ended ‘purity’ in order to be accepted. There are no set-in-stone beliefs for either party, and Peitersen asked the group to stop and think about who defines what makes the parties pure. He pointed out that is takes people of all party-commitment levels (he briefly discussed ‘liberal republicans’ and ‘conservative democrats’ and referred to them as modern-day unicorns) to make parties work to their full potential.

How do we get back on track, and return to a point that people on all ends of the political spectrum can hold civil discussion? We start by being serious. Peitersen pointed out that it is incredibly important to remove unnecessary jokes and sarcasm from the conversation. Leave the personal attacks and bullying at home. Stop and think about what you are saying, and how it is coming across.

Focus on the issue at hand, not on an individual involved in the conversation. When a conversation turns into a personal issue, it is over. It is perfectly acceptable to agree to disagree. Politics, on any level, are not a black and white topic. When you present an opinion, make sure you can back it up with verifiable facts. Respect others, and the opinions they present. Actively listen to what is being said. Keep your manners in mind, but do not confuse manners with being nice. Spirited argumentation is healthy when it is backed up with triangulated facts. Knowing when and how to walk away from a conversation is an important part of civil discourse, as well.

Peitersen encouraged the crowd to make acquaintances. He noted that you don’t have to make friends with everyone, every interaction you have with people is important. He encouraged people to leave their ‘safe bubbles,’ to expand their horizons. You can’t grow if you don’t expose yourself to anything new. Peitersen noted that it will be uncomfortable at first, and to be aware so you don’t overwhelm yourself when starting out.

Step away from social media. The internet has minimal accountability, and is often more frustrating than anything. Facebook comments are open to interpretation, and the intent is too easy to misread. Instead of relying on social media, look to non-conventional sources for information. Take the time to do a little bit of research and verify the facts you intend to build your opinions on.

The talk wrapped up with a healthy open discussion. The crowd ranged from high school students to adults of all ages, and the discussion gave the listeners a brief chance to practice their new skills. Politics don’t need to be angry, or as stressful a they’ve become. The information above applies at both a national and local level, but the local level presents it’s very own challenges…but that’s a topic for later! We look forward to Big Ideas talks in the future.

 

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