John Laird: Civil discourse of 2012: ‘La la la … I can’t hear you’

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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As Americans become increasingly polarized politically, it seems we’re losing our capacity to listen. We’re too busy interrupting each other to consider opposing views, too insecure in our own ideologies to believe other ideas might be more compelling.

Two years ago a Pew Research Center study revealed statistics that I found troubling: 25 percent of Democrats watch CNN and 16 percent watch MSNBC, but only 15 percent watch Fox News. Among Republicans, 40 percent watch Fox News, but only 12 percent watch CNN and only 6 percent watch MSNBC. What’s troubling is that so many Democrats and Republicans refuse to watch TV commentators with whom they disagree. Personally, I watch ’em all -- on a regular basis -- because I believe a full spectrum of news and commentary is needed to form my opinions. The only commentator I find painful to watch is Bill O’Reilly because he constantly interrupts others. It mystifies me why anyone would agree to appear on his show. On radio, I listen regularly to both conservative and liberal commentators, probably spending more time with Rush Limbaugh and Ed Schultz than any of the others.

My openness to myriad ideas is rooted in my childhood. When I went to my father for sympathy after someone had insulted me, he often would reply, “Well, Bub, maybe they’re trying to tell you something.” And as a columnist who generates a fair amount of anger among readers, I try to keep my late father’s words in mind. So I wonder why more Democrats don’t listen to Sean Hannity and more Republicans don’t listen to Rachel Maddow.

Even Bill Maher believes in a free and open arena. Recently on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Maher said that “through it all, I have defended Rush’s right to stay on the air. Not what he said, that was disgusting, but the right to not disappear because people who don’t even listen to you don’t like what you said. … We all have different tastes and different opinions. That’s America.”

Disagree? We’re leaving!

At the local level, last Monday night’s Vancouver City Council meeting provided a good example of people who have no interest in listening to different ideas of others. I watched the meeting live on CVTV and later called several people who attended the meeting.

For more than an hour, Paul Montague sat patiently and listened to seething, snarling people express their opposition to light rail and the Columbia River Crossing. As executive director of Identity Clark County, Montague surely could’ve found more pleasant ways to spend the evening.

He was the last to speak during the public comments section of the meeting. As he began, the large group of angry people made a special point of leaving the chamber in a not-so-subtle manner. Clearly, they had no interest in listening to what Montague had to say. Strange, but the same folks who continually complain that they are not being listened to … simply got up and left, refusing to listen to an alternative view.

That’s too bad, because they missed a dignified, eloquent and extemporaneous statement by councilor Bill Turlay at the end of the meeting. Turlay, the council’s only rookie, reminded what was left of the audience that he is opposed to light rail and the Columbia River Crossing as it is currently proposed. “The caveat that goes with that is that I’m in the minority on this council,” he said. “I’d also like to say that the council has been very tolerant in listening to my views.”

Turlay then said he would continue to oppose light rail and the CRC. “The other thing I’d like to say is that some of the testimony tonight was very close to being personal attacks on members of the council and/or elected officials. I in no way condone that particular action. We need to speak in a civil discourse in order to meet problems that face our city and our council head-on, with good solid evidence on both sides and not attack individuals.”

Turlay’s comments reflected conviction, statesmanship and keen listening skills. Too bad many of his admirers were out in the foyer, refusing to listen.