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We Must Banish
Anger and Vitriol from
Community Service

Christopher J. Daggett
By Christopher J. Daggett,
President and CEO
Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

As part of my work at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, I often meet with schools and other organizations working to improve education. Recently I visited a high school in Newark, where I met a young man who expressed his enthusiasm to become a politician. One of the adults in the group quickly questioned, “Why on earth would you want to do that? Politics is no career for any decent person….”

Unfortunately, that response reflects the feelings of too many citizens about today’s polarized and largely unproductive political arena. Nevertheless, I heartily disagreed with the adult’s opinion—and quickly told the young man to go for it. To paraphrase my old boss, former Governor Tom Kean, “public service is a public calling.”

Public service is indeed a public calling, worthy of the best and brightest of our students and citizens.

A half century ago this year, President John F. Kennedy gave his stirring inaugural address, in which he put forth a call to public service. On that day, he inspired millions to consider serving their country—and many responded by entering the Peace Corps, VISTA, social service agencies, teaching and the military.

How times have changed. Fifty years later, public service is regarded in too many circles as a dirty word. Just listen to the angry rhetoric around the urgent need to rein in government pension and health care benefits—where government workers and teachers are cast as greedy people living off the public dole.

Or, remember how President Obama was castigated as a “community organizer.”

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Our poisonous political climate—in Washington, D.C., in the media, and in state capitals across the country—mistakes demeaning your opponents for reasoned discourse.

So how did we get to this point? There’s no denying that some of this disdain was brought upon us by the misdeeds of some who held the public trust—those who enriched themselves while impoverishing their communities. But the vast majority of people in politics and government went into it for the right reasons—to serve, to make a difference, to share their talents with others and to lead a fulfilling life. They are the vast majority of public servants—the unsung heroes in the arena.
So, beyond the anger toward a small minority of self-serving individuals, why is there such a general distaste for the field of public service? Certainly the tenor of public discourse has been a factor. Our poisonous political climate—in Washington, D.C., in the media, and in state capitals across the country—mistakes demeaning your opponents for reasoned discourse.

There is a “with us or against us” mentality on both sides of the political aisle that leaves the majority of us—who are moderate in the best sense of the word—with no place to turn. Governor Kean once said that he was a middle-of-the-roader because the filth runs down the gutters on both sides of the street. Today, all too often, it seems that there is no middle of the road in the American political debate.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the moral values that form the basis of our political choices. Responding to recent research in moral and political psychology, Haidt and his associates at CivilPolitics.org have said this about the state of political discourse:

“…when disagreements activate the psychology of good-versus-evil, compromise becomes far more difficult; reasoning becomes far less responsive to facts; and combatants begin to believe that the ends justify the means. When that happens, partisans are more willing to break laws, play dirty tricks, lie, and ruin the personal lives of their opponents—all in the service of what they think is a good cause. Good people are discouraged from entering politics. Good public servants are driven out of public service.”

We should all be concerned by the high level of apathy and distrust that many citizens have toward government. Too many Americans are discouraged by the poisonous political climate today—by the angry rhetoric, vicious personal attacks, and uncompromising ideologies. They are embarrassed by the “made for YouTube”, in-your-face rhetoric, that turns town hall meetings into shouting matches more suitable for the Jerry Springer show.

Their response has been to tune out, turn the volume down, and take a break from—or, worse, quit altogether—active citizenship.

We must move beyond the politics of anger, blame, personal attacks, and public scorn. It is time to push back against this tide and create conditions for civil dialogue and civic action.

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, said, “It is far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism.” In America today, the economy is mired in what is commonly called the “new normal,” a jobless recovery that leaves far too many people unemployed or underemployed. The healthcare debate rages ever on, and our environmental issues defy easy resolution. These are indeed difficult days.
But these are our days. This is our time.

In our increasingly complex and interconnected world, we need young leaders with solid preparation to confront these issues of the future, to be inspired toward a career in public service, not steered away from it.

It will be up to them to transform the culture of anger and vitriol into a culture of service and collaboration. This may seem groundbreaking, but the threads of cooperation and moral humility are ancient. It is reflected in the words of the Buddhist Zen Master, Sent-ts’an, who in the Eighth Century said:

“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between “for” and “against” is the mind’s worst disease.”

This doesn’t mean you can’t set out to change the world. But, it does mean that you need to pay attention to process and how you engage people in conversation about change. If we take the time to understand where people come from, what their experience is, and why and how they have formed their perspective, we can create the conditions for civil and civic discourse, involvement and action.

The essence of democracy is based on understanding and debating opposing experiences and perspectives, then building consensus. It is only by making this crucial shift—from tearing down others to understanding differences and engaging in civic and civil discourse—that we can get on with the vital work of redesigning existing systems, inventing new ones, and finding creative solutions to our nation’s very real and urgent problems.

 

Originally published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 88, Number 8, November 2011

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