Luskin: Civility Circle

Nov 3, 2016

For the second time in as many years, Newfane voters are being asked to reconsider a bond vote that failed - about whether or not to build a new town office.

Again, passions are running high as people both for and against the proposal have their say. And this is terrific, because this is how democracy works. But two things about the nature of this discourse bother me: its tone and its method.

At the first hearing about whether or not to build a new town office, some people spoke in angry tones filled with disdain, as if those who opposed their own point of view were out to ruin the town. The bond failed; a petition for a revote was turned in; a second hearing was held; and we will vote again on Tuesday.

At this point, I really don’t care whether we build or renovate but I do care how we conduct ourselves in civil debate. Too often, we speak in frustration and anger, repeating ourselves in ever more strident tones. And we often don’t listen well, especially to those whose opinions differ from ours. We dig into a win-lose binary that devolves into verbal combat that harms the body politic and results in bad feelings instead of the sense of a community doing its best.

I think there must be a way that’s less combative and more collaborative, and I’m not alone.

The National Institute of Civil Discourse cites heated rhetoric and a dramatic shift away from bipartisan collaboration as a major factor in our failure to solve pressing national problems. To improve civility in government, they provide training for elected officials like Mike Mrorwicki of Putney, one of several participating Vermont legislators. He says he’s learned that civil discourse starts with better listening.

And I know he’s right, because I’ve seen it through my work with Restorative Justice, a program and method used within Vermont’s criminal justice system to repair the harm caused by crime. But restorative practices have many applications, and I think the circle process, in particular, could be applied to solving local issues in a way that promotes community rather than tears it apart.
In the circle, everyone takes a turn answering the same question; everyone has an equal voice, and everyone’s voice is heard.

But perhaps the geometry alone tells much of the story – because in a circle there are no sides.