Politics, Facts And Civility: A Lesson In Engaging In Discourse

Oct 27, 2018
Originally published on October 28, 2018 1:25 pm

A shooting on Saturday at a synagogue in Pittsburgh left at least 11 people dead. Earlier this week, at least 14 pipe bombs were sent to prominent Democrats and their supporters — apparently because of their political views.

But even before this week's events, people across Pennsylvania were saying they are frustrated with the tone of the country's public discourse and the lack of civility. They say they're hoping for more unity.

That message might have special resonance in Gettysburg — the site of the epic civil war battle in 1863. It went down as one of this country's bloodiest, where more than 50,000 Americans were injured or killed over the course of three days.

But now, in 2018, a group of residents in Gettysburg has been meeting up in a historic church to practice what others preach: bringing people of different political views together. It's called Politics, Facts and Civility.

Democrat Kerr Thompson, a former college professor, founded the group in 2017. Darcy Maier, also a Democrat, joined the group through her friendship with Thompson. Republican Chad Collie is also a member and says he got involved after the 2016 presidential campaign.

"During the 2016 campaign, I saw a lot of incivility, a lot of anger, a lot of resentment and saw that coming to a boiling point in many ways and it encouraged me to stop and think about what was going on in the nation," Collie says.

In 2016 and years prior, Collie says he was very politically involved and served as the vice chairman of the local Republican Party. After the election, he says he resigned from the position "and made a vow to myself to get more involved in the community, in talking to people who were on the other side of the aisle."

While Collie joined out of what he felt was a need he had, Maier says she didn't initially seek out this bipartisan conversation.

"I have always been a pretty staunch Democrat," she says. "I never really thought about how important it was to bridge the divide until I got involved. I think that realizing that there is valid points to be made on both sides and that there is a balance that we can find is, has just been a real eye-opening experience for me."

Maier says the conversations she's had have been "invaluable for me opening my horizons."

When Thompson started the group, he says he just hoped people would come together and "come to understand each other more."

"I am very convinced ... that there are valid points on all sides," Thompson says. "I am very blue, blue voter, but I think that that red voters have valid points that it will enrich all of us if we can listen to each other."

Maier says it took Thompson's encouragement to come to the group, but "it was the surprise at the civility of the conversation that made me stay."

As a fairly quiet person Maier says she doesn't often express herself well in group situations and doesn't want to go to places where there will be arguing, but in the group's environment, everyone encourages each other and listens to what the others say.

National discourse

For members of the group, the rhetoric of President Trump is a frequent topic of conversation.

"Well, I would I would just begin by saying that I was also concerned with Trump's incivility during the campaign specifically and some of the things he's said since then have been very uncivil," Collie says. "Every president that we've ever had has had pros and cons, and if I was able to talk to President Trump today, I would I would challenge him on that and I would encourage him to be more civil, especially on Twitter."

Seeing this as one of Trump's weaknesses, Collie says that's why he is participating in these conversations.

"That's one of the reasons that I try to speak up more for civility, because I think everyone should have influence, including the president of the United States," Collie says. "I think his tone has changed some. I think some of his policies, some of the things that have been enacted have been very good for the country. But I think that's something that he specifically has to work on himself. And I'm not afraid to say that."

Hearing each other

Maier admits that she and Collie do have differing opinions and views on a lot of issues, but that they still keep their discussions civil.

"It's because we both have a commitment to listening and when we sit down at the table with each other, we come with an open mind, really wanting to know what the other person thinks about an issue and not trying to win the argument," she says.

She says they know the conversations won't end with one of them changing the other's mind, but that that's not the goal.

"Our goal is really curiosity and an open heart," Maier says.

As people begin to head to the polls for this year's midterm elections, the group says there are some things to keep in mind that could help open up similar discussions in other parts of the country.

"My first advice to people would be 'vote,' " Thompson says. "I think we need to come to realize that we have started thinking of politics as win-lose, or life in general as win-lose, that I have to beat you to do well. And, actually where we have had the most progress and civilization is when we have learned to work together to everyone's benefit."

The groups also acknowledges their location in Gettysburg might give their conversations a special resonance.

"I think that when we think about the fact that we're meeting at the church, called the Prince of Peace, which was built as a memorial of reconciliation between the North and the South after the Civil War, I think that that says a lot about what our community stands for and the work that we're trying to do," Maier says.

NPR's Hiba Ahmad and Ammad Omar produced and edited the audio for this story. Wynne Davis produced it for digital.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And once again, we are broadcasting today from WHYY in Philadelphia. That is where we were when we got the terrible news of the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh this morning. And this in a week when two people were killed in Kentucky, apparently because of their race. And pipe bombs were sent to prominent figures, apparently because of their political views. But even before those awful events, we were hearing people across Pennsylvania tell us they are frustrated with the tone of this country's public discourse, the lack of civility. They told us they hoped for more unity. And that is a message that might have special resonance in Gettysburg, the site of an epic Civil War battle in 1863, one of this country's bloodiest, where more than 50,000 Americans were injured or killed over the course of three days.

But now, in 2018, a group of residents there have been meeting up in an historic church to practice what others preach, bringing people of different political views together. It's called Politics, Facts and Civility. Democrat Kerr Thompson, a former college professor, founded the group in 2017. Darcy Maier, also a Democrat, joined the group through her friendship with Thompson. And Republican Chad Collie is also a member, and he told me why he got involved.

CHAD COLLIE: In 2016, in previous years before that, was very politically involved. I was vice chairman of the Republican Party here locally. During the 2016 campaign, I saw a lot of incivility, a lot of anger, a lot of resentment and saw that coming to a boiling point in many ways. And it encouraged me to stop and think about what was going on in the nation. And so I resigned from that and made a vow to myself to get more involved in the community and talking to people who were on the other side of the aisle.

MARTIN: It sounds to me like this was something that was in you, like a need that you had. It's interesting that there are a number of national political figures who've been calling for something like this like John Kasich in Ohio. I know maybe Joe Biden you could make the same argument.

COLLIE: Yeah. And Tom Ridge was just here in Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: Former governor of Pennsylvania, former secretary of Homeland Security. But you - it sounds like that was something that was kind of in you.

COLLIE: It was.

MARTIN: And thankfully, Kerr came up with a structure for that. Darcy, what about you? Is this something that was kind of a hunger within you?

DARCY MAIER: No, it wasn't.

MARTIN: Really?

MAIER: I have always been a pretty staunch Democrat. I - that's where I've pretty much come down on the left on most things, call myself a progressive. I never really thought about how important it was to bridge the divide until I got involved. I think that realizing that there is valid points to be made on both sides and that there is a balance that we can find is - has just been a real eye-opening experience for me.

MARTIN: Kerr, what did you envision when you started this group? Like, what were you hoping to accomplish?

KERR THOMPSON: I was hoping that we could come to understand each other more. And I am very convinced, as Darcy just said, that there are valid points on all sides. Like Darcy, I am a very blue, blue voter. But I think that red voters have valid points, that it will enrich all of us if we can listen to each other. It's sort of like the story of the blind men and the elephant, which I don't know if you're familiar with Philip Tetlock's book "Expert Political Judgment" in which he actually tests the theory that the more you investigate various points of view, the more likely you are to be correct in predicting what will happen in the future, for example.

MARTIN: So, Darcy, not that you were saying I don't want to talk to those people, meaning Chad...

MAIER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...But you were not as hungry for this experience as others were. What made you finally decide to come?

MAIER: Well, it really was Kerr's invitation and Kerr's encouragement that got me to come to the group. And then it was the surprise at the civility of the conversation that made me stay. I tend to be a fairly quiet person who doesn't express myself very well in a group situation. And so I don't like the idea of going into a place where there's going to be arguing and fighting and I feel like I'm going to just shut down. I will just shut down. So this kind of environment where everybody is expected to have something to say really helped to me, and knowing that people were not going to argue with me or shut me down.

MARTIN: Chad, here's where I have to impose upon our new friendship and put you on the spot.

COLLIE: Sure.

MARTIN: Because for a lot of people, I think on the left but also a lot of people who are just living their lives, the big elephant in the room is the current president and the way he deals with people.

COLLIE: Right.

MARTIN: For a lot of people, he is the definition of incivility. I mean, it's like, how can you say you support civility in public discourse and still support this president? Because for some people, like, this this latest report about the transgender community - right? - saying that they want to change the law so that they won't exist. And people are saying, wait a minute, you're trying to tell me I don't exist, but I support the tax cut. Like, that's OK. You know I mean? So for some people, they just can't square that. How do you even - how do you answer that?

COLLIE: Well, I would just begin by saying that I was also concerned with Trump's incivility during the campaign specifically. And some of the things he's said since then have been very uncivil. Every president that we've ever had and has had pros and cons. And if I was able to talk to President Trump today, I would challenge him on that. And I would encourage him to be more civil, especially on Twitter. But with that said, you know, with every president, there are strengths and there are weaknesses. And I would consider that one of his definite weaknesses. It's one of the reasons that I try to speak up more for civility because I think everyone should have influence, including the president of the United States. I think his tone has changed some. I think some of his policies, some of the things that have been enacted have been very good for the country. But I think that's something that he specifically has to work on himself, and I'm not afraid to say that.

MARTIN: Darcy, what about you? Does that - how does that sit with you?

MAIER: What Chad just said?

MARTIN: Yeah.

MAIER: Well, Chad and I definitely have differences. (Laughter) We talk about that quite a bit. I do not obviously support President Trump because, as I already told you, I'm blue. I'm progressive. He's - I don't support his policies. And I don't support what I see as his moral shortcomings. I don't know that Chad would go so far as to say that his incivility is a moral shortcoming, but I - that's how I feel about it. So Chad and I have many very civil discussions. And we are very different. We come down on very different sides on a lot of issues.

MARTIN: And what makes - what helps you to do that? Is it because you both live here and you're going to see each other at the grocery store?

MAIER: No.

MARTIN: Is it because you just like each other now or?

MAIER: I've never run into him at the grocery store.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What helps you to do that?

MAIER: It's because we both have a commitment to listening. And when we sit down at the table with each other, we come with an open mind, really wanting to know what the other person thinks about an issue and not trying to win the argument. We know that we're not going to change each other's opinions on anything, and that's not our goal. Our goal is really curiosity and an open heart.

MARTIN: What advice does each of you have for people as we head into the home stretch of this election year?

THOMPSON: My first advice to people would be vote. I think we need to come to realize that we have started thinking of politics as win-lose or life in general as win-lose - that I have to beat you to do well. And actually, where we have had the most progress and civilization is when we have learned to work together to everyone's benefit.

MARTIN: I wonder if this work that you're doing here has special resonance in part because you are in Gettysburg, which was the scene of so much carnage earlier in our history. And does that, in a way, provide a counterpoint when you think about how many lost their lives here when this country was pulled apart and you're thinking, well, OK, what do you think?

THOMPSON: It could be. I grew up in the South. And three of my great uncles fought in the war. Two of them died. And I wonder when they came home not knowing whether the house was still - the one came home not knowing when the house was still standing, I wondered if they looked at all that had happened and they remembered that Lincoln had tried to offer an out to free the slaves, buying them back one state at a time, as was done in many Latin American countries - and they thought, good grief, were we not stupid?

MAIER: I think that when we think about the fact that we're meeting at the church called the Prince of Peace, which was built as a memorial of reconciliation between the North and the South after the Civil War, I think that that says a lot about what our community stands for and the work that we're trying to do.

MARTIN: Chad, does it have some special meaning for you that this work is taking place in Gettysburg? I don't know where you were born and raised, but does it provide a bit of resonance for the work you're trying to accomplish?

COLLIE: I often refer to myself as a rebel in Yankee territory. And I say that, you know, tongue-in-cheek. But it certainly does make a difference. And I've said, you know, and I've - in talking with Kerr and Darcy, I said, if we can't talk about civility in Gettysburg, then where can we? And so I happen to carry around oftentimes a Civil War bullet with me because that reminds me that it wasn't just about political strategies. It was about the bullets that tore through the blood, bone and flesh of fellow Americans. And I'm also not afraid to say and have confirmed this with many people that if we don't focus more on civility in this day and time, we're moving closer and closer toward another Civil War if we're not careful.

Some of the headlines that we see across the country - and a lot of that depends on whether you focus on the positives or focus on the negatives - but there are a lot of really bad stories across the country. And that's why it's been encouraging to be a part of this group and to kind of resonate the message of civility because it is very, very important, especially in this day and time. We have a chance to make a huge difference. And if we don't take that opportunity, then we've really missed out.

MARTIN: Well, Chad Collie, Darcy Maier and Kerr Thompson, they are members of the group Politics, Facts and Civility. We met up with them at Prince of Peace Episcopal Church in Gettysburg, Penn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.