Uncivil Discourse

The public airing of grievances may not quite be the linchpin of our democracy, but it certainly can be one of its vital and more vibrant aspects. It is, of course, no replacement for the ballot box or the jury box when it comes to affecting genuine change in our governments, but it absolutely is a better alternative than the cartridge box.

The airing of grievances that began in Fairfield County last summer over whether or not the former Administrator was using his County computer for a pornographic playground, for example, mushroomed into the kind of give and take that makes democracy the best of a bad lot, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, when it comes to forms of government. Saving Fairfield asked for changes and County Council responded to a number of them. No more monthly disbursements without receipts. No more cold, hard cash in lieu of health insurance. No more contracts awarded through a “bidding” system more unorthodox than a pope named Goldberg. And the County’s checking account, as well as a whole host of other documents, are posted to the County’s website for public review.

Have the lines of communication been entirely unimpeded all of the time? Probably not, and there are always going to be more questions than answers; but there has been just enough movement to give both sides dislocated shoulders patting themselves on the back. Whether Saving Fairfield wishes to credit what progress has been made to FOIA requests, pitchforks and torches or Council wishes to consider themselves a responsible body, receptive and responsive to the public’s concerns is not important. What matters is the progress. And, like good beer, there’s always more to be made.

Yet the biggest impediment to any grassroots movement is civility, for there is a fine distinction between peaceful revolution and anarchy, as well as between counterpoint and outright slander.

Members of the public who have stepped up to the microphone at Council meetings over the last several months, be they card-carrying Saving Fairfield members or not, are generally reasonably informed and well behaved, as are the recipients of their criticism and concerns. The exceptions, however, are so glaring, so ominous and so reprehensible as to cast a pall over their better elements. An audience may cringe and inwardly groan to hear a member of the public characterize Council members as “stupid” and “dumb,” and they may even snicker when one of these erstwhile Shakespeares, on their way out of the chambers in company of a deputy, encourage the Chairman to join them outside in a thinly veiled pugilistic challenge. But for a member of the public to remove all veils and openly tell the Chairman – or anyone else, for that matter – that they will “drop” him is crossing a line beyond where almost all other lines are drawn.

Not only does that sort of individual behavior risk overshadowing any and all accomplishments made by the whole, it threatens any future accomplishments by tainting the credibility of the group. It also takes things to a scary and dangerous place, where no one wants to go and from which it is difficult to extract one’s self.

Council, too, must hold up its end of the civil contract, and as long as the Chairman holds the gavel it is his responsibility to rein in the occasional loose Council cannon. Blanket statements, painting an entire group as racist hatemongers and hurling out unsubstantiated accusations is no way to maintain a dialogue. Although we do not expect to hear an apology come down from behind the District 3 nameplate, one would certainly be appreciated. Otherwise, it is time for the District 3 Councilman to start naming names and offering some evidence to support his particular grievances.

There are ways to affect change. Good ways. Ways that don’t involve insults and threats. Those ways tend to work faster, inspire the best kind of change and no one gets hurt or arrested. Sprinkle a little sugar on the medicine. It goes down easier.

Comments

  1. Norm_Nav says

    Well said James. I know, as a card carrying member of Saving Fairfield, that we are indeed trying to repair the process of gevernanace in our County. There are times when folks cross the line of civility, I regret them with my entire being, I cringe when people leave the playing fields where referees and umpires and rules of civility rule the day. In the end I think we can all agree that what we seek is a responsible, transparent, honest, open, and community minded form of government, and governors.

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