Commentary: Finding our way back to civility and reasonable discourse


Now that the election is behind us, I’d like to share some thoughts. Given the amount and degree of ad hominem attacks and disrespectful language we have been subjected to locally and nationwide, one might wonder if there is a way back to civility and reasonable discourse.

I believe there is, but it’s not something that politicians on either side can determine — although they and their partisans or opponents can undermine it. It comes down to each of us, individually, and it comes down to whether we want community, or stagnation in a perpetual state of antagonism and unease.

A French philosopher whom I have been unable to track down defined courtesy as a way of showing respect for another even when we don’t have the time to know that person. Kenneth Clark wrote, “…I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos.”

As we move past the election then, I believe both sides need to step back and reflect.  Those who have not won the election need to recognize the legitimate process of the transfer of power and as far as they are able in principle, must work with the victors.  At the same time, the victors must not assume that the winner takes all and no one else counts.  We elect officials to serve the best interests of all of us, and that sometimes means treading lightly.

This does not mean that we need to agree with each other. But it does mean that I need to treat you with respect, and vice versa.  We can disagree, but we have to disagree as two members of a community who share many common needs and fears, but differ as to how to deal with them constructively.

Principled compromise is not weakness: it is the recognition of community and the other person’s values and life experience – and we must agree that your experience is a valid as mine.

It is legitimate to disagree. Disagreement, as messy and upsetting as it can be, is what makes democracy work. In a totalitarian state, left or right, you don’t get to disagree. We do get that privilege, but we get very little progress when we attack one another.

It seems to be forgotten that if I yell at you, you will stop listening to what I have to say. Some of the discussions on these pages have gone far past attempts to convince the other person.  We accomplish very little when we turn negative on someone, satisfying as it may be to call names and shout. It’s worth remembering that when we write or speak that we’re not going to convince the extremes on either side; it’s the undecided in the middle that we need to persuade, and that is best done with courtesy and restraint.

I hope that when the next election rolls around we can treat each other with more respect that has been the case in some instances in this election. I hope each one of us can hold back just a bit, and listen; wounding other people’s feelings is rarely a way to win an argument, and it does sometimes take a lot of self-discipline to know when we’ve said our say and it’s time to be quiet.

It’s everybody’s job. It can’t be handed over to “leaders.” You and I are the ones who have to do the sometimes hard work of being truly part of a community.

— By Nathaniel Brown

5 Replies to “Commentary: Finding our way back to civility and reasonable discourse”

  1. With so few of the registered voters voting, 7000 out of 41,000 for the city of Edmonds, I would have hoped you would mention that this is a shame. I am not upset about who won or lost, I looked at the amount of votes counted. Mailing the ballots out costs taxpayers dollars. Maybe they should go back to the old ways of voting in the booth and then give a coupon for Starbucks, I would think that this would be about the same cost as sending them out each voting session.


    1. It is a shame – a very big shame, and I wonder if the scale of vituperation reflected in these pages might have discouraged and confused voters? It certainly left me wondering whom to believe, or more accurately, whom not to believe. Thank you – these are probably related matters.


  2. Mr. Brown, I truly hope this is possible, because the absence of civility and graciousness makes for an ugly world.


  3. I agree about the lack of people voting. Having spent a good deal of time in countries where people aren’t allowed to vote, I realize how precious the vote is. I think that is what happens when one takes for granted what is a privilege.. Perhaps it won’t be appreciated until the day (hopefully never) when we all are not allowed to vote either.


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