Beneath the high-domed ceiling of the Joan Kroc Peace and Justice Theatre, an opulent facility at the University of San Diego, a crowd of perhaps 80 convened on Monday, April 9, for what the hosts termed a “community conference on restoring civility to civic dialogue.”
The attendees, mostly public-sector folks on a busman’s holiday (one conference-goer whispered to me, “They’re leaders”), gathered for a three-hour session whose stated goal was to “mitigate the rise of incivility amongst individuals, community leaders, public officials, and the media” in San Diego.
The conference, touted as the “first annual,” was spawned by an event hosted in 2011 by the Catfish Club, in which the organizers had expressed a yearning “for a return to the time when [we] treated one another with respect.” The Catfish website describes the group as “the only venue in San Diego that provides a weekly, public airing of divergent views on topics critical to the success of diversity in the nation’s sixth largest city.”
First at the podium was Dorothy Smith, listed on the event program as a member of the advisory board of the USD School of Leadership and Education Sciences, which offers academic fare such as a certificate in “Peace and Global Education.” Her task was to introduce George W. Smith (no relation), a minister and the big fish among the Catfish. The reverend set the ideological tone: “Over the last eight to ten years, I have seen a drastic change in San Diego, in this state, and in this nation as far as incivility is concerned. We saw what happened in Florida, we saw what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the weekend. I’d like to remind you of what happened in Tulsa in 1921. Tulsa had a community that was called the Black Wall Street, which could’ve been the trademark for black development in this country forever, and it was completely annihilated through killings of more than a thousand black people.” (The death toll in the Tulsa incident was calculated to be 36 by the State of Oklahoma.) Smith did not offer an explanation of how the recent shootings — much less the nearly century-old riot — might be linked to incivility in San Diego’s discourse, past or present.
However, the next speaker, USD student Jeremy Wayland, did suggest a causal link between intemperate dialogue and heinous actions. Striving to relate the absence of civility — such as it can be defined — to authoritarianism and ultimately genocide, he cut right to the Third Reich, opining that “the consequences of inactive citizenship and the abuse of media created a society in which tyrants were allowed to grow…which then led to the development of the Nazi Party.” After an homage to a treatise by John Locke (traditional standby of the undergrad poli-sci set), it was almost time for the main event.
The keynote speaker, Dan Walters, came on after a breezy send-up by Ed Quinn, retired talking head and local media honcho. Walters, a veteran reporter and student of California politics, held forth on the state of the State — not a discussion of civility, per se, but a comprehensive, historical treatment of the demographic, economic, and political changes that have, in his estimation, rendered California ungovernable — and perhaps less civil. As to “civility,” he stated, “It’s more than politeness, good manners, nice words. It’s dialogue…leading to something constructive…that responds to the issue at hand.”
Panel moderator Carl Luna — who later served as scribe for the audience’s collective “civility” definition — echoed Walters’s emphasis on historical context, noting (briefly) the decided “political nastiness” of the past, including the presidential campaign that culminated in the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Like Walters, Luna — who characterized Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as “unifiers” and spoke of political hyperbole (in the context of George W. Bush and Obama) as being an equal-opportunity force — also made a conscious attempt to strike a bipartisan note in his analysis.
In contrast to the middle-of-the-fairway approach taken by Walters and Luna, several of the guest panelists had no such compunction against political advocacy, venturing, in many cases, into the land of the gored ox for examples of the “uncivil.” Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, alleged that merely to question Barack Obama’s citizenship or religion is to engage in incivility; she also decried the “lack of respect” exhibited, she stated, in the “you lie” comment made by South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson to Obama in 2009.
Next up was Murray Galinson, known around town as an inveterate board member, who zeroed in on politicos, maintaining that “people are turned off to politics” due to the current tone of public discourse. “We should insist on tolerance and civility in elected officials and…demand that candidates not make outrageous statements about their opponents.”
Galinson was followed by Tony Perry, who declared, “San Diego is ground zero in the fight against incivility.” Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times (U-T San Diego was conspicuously absent), took swipes at the local (“Mission Valley”) news media for its coverage of the city pension crisis; the reportage, he quipped, sounded like a “Chinese opera.” He also took potshots at San Diegans as a body politic. “[San Diego] is a libertarian theme park. San Diegans want things cheap…. San Diego’s cheapness is the 900-pound elephant.” Perry didn’t, however, flesh out his apparently inchoate theory that stinginess in public spending causes nasty public discourse.
Tom Shepard, political consultant, trained his focus on the role of the media. Taking a vaguely McLuhanesque tack suffused with a tinge of moralism, he stated, “We all know there’s been a fundamental change…. There used to be a monopoly of dissemination of information, which led to the exclusion of those outside community norms and propriety.” Lamenting the decline of what he called the “town square” approach to public discourse — one in which “irresponsible” speech was condemned — Shepard decried the anonymity of the internet.
At noon, Reverend Smith — having apparently discarded the “good old days” thesis — wrapped things up with a call-and-response: “I grew up on a plantation in Alabama…and I see some of those same things happening today.” Gesturing to the audience, he said, “Are we gonna let that happen again?” Ever civil, the flock shouted, “NO!”