Business Casual: Civility And Sausage-Making

Democracy can be loud and messy, as we have been reminded over the course of the healthcare reform debate. The comparison of law-making to sausage-making seems as apt as ever.

Tracking the news coverage of the summer’s town hall meetings, I found myself longing for more civility and less acrimony. Name-calling, distortion and disruption are bad enough, but hate-mongering tactics cross another line.

Some people initially may have been happy to let the debate become one of emotion rather than reason. But I have to believe that no rational person, regardless of which side of the issue he or she comes down on, was happy to see the dispute take such an ugly turn.

Healthcare reform is a serious matter that stirs up strong feelings. People who have decent coverage are afraid they might lose it; those who don’t have it live in fear of a serious illness. There is a lot of anxiety out there over a lot of other things that have come to a head during the debate. I think proponents underestimated this. Nonetheless, people should be allowed to ask questions, demand answers and express opinions.

I’d like to think that if you looked up “First Amendment fan” in the dictionary, you would find my picture. I don’t expect that people exercising their right to free speech will always be saying what I want to hear.

I happen to believe that the current system of access to healthcare badly needs reform; that costs are rising to a level that is not sustainable. I believe that health insurance coverage should be available to everyone.

And I applaud the political leaders who are putting themselves out there and working, under public scrutiny, to figure out exactly what can and should be done – and how to do it. I have much more respect for those who advance ideas than I do for those who simply shoot down ideas others have raised.

Still, on an issue so complex there ought to be some strong disagreement and debate.

But people who show up at rallies and town hall meetings with signs depicting the president of the United States as Hitler and people who throw the term “Nazi” at those whose positions they disagree with are not rational citizens making a contribution to civil discourse. They’re shouting “Fire!” in a crowded building that is not on fire.

Thoughtful questions deserve thoughtful responses; flagrant displays of hate-fueled paranoia do not.

Nor should South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, who shouted “You lie!” to the Pres-ident as Mr. Obama was addressing Congress, be regarded as just another enthusiastic dissenter.

Opponents of healthcare reform need to take a stronger stand and distance themselves from the hate-spewers and fear-mongers and not allow them to pre-empt serious discussion.

It seems obvious that many Georgians want “something” to be done about healthcare but differ on the specifics. All the more reason to tone down the rhetoric and get to the substance.

The town hall meeting I attended at the Georgia Perimeter College Clarkston campus in DeKalb County last August, conducted by Congressman Hank Johnson, was spirited but generally civil. The organizers had obviously learned from some of the earlier, more disruptive meetings in other parts of the country; so this meeting accomplished what it set out to do.

It gave the attendees a chance to hear from their elected Congressional representative, who supports healthcare reform, and from a panel of health experts that included both supporters and opponents. Members of the audience had an opportunity to state their positions and ask their questions.

There was a visible police presence, and there were ground rules – no interruptions, no disruptions.

Periodically, the audience was asked to hold its applause, which didn’t always happen. There was a good deal of mumbling and occasionally a noisy bit of derisive laughter from those who disagreed with the speaker or questioner; but the meeting was always under control. It worked.

You could not miss the sharp divides among those who asked questions or made comments, but civility prevailed. And I think most of the attendees – including me – left feeling they had learned something.

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