Tensions can run high in local issues, but lately the state of discourse has reached a sad low. When being the loudest person in the room and the most passionate advocate for your opinion becomes the objective at a public meeting, it’s a sign of a broken dialogue and a complete breakdown in civility.
Our state of uncivil discourse has been a long time coming. In Chapel Hill, the discussions around Ephesus-Fordham, Central West, Obey Creek, Charterwood, and other planning processes and developments foreshadowed where we are today, with outbursts, disruptions, and other tactics being used to derail conversations and suppress diverse viewpoints and opinions. Now, in Carrboro, discussions about the construction of a multi-use path from Winmore/the Landings on Homestead Road to Chapel Hill High School have seen a return to a lack of civility.
Public hearings are designed so that all members of our community can take their allotted three minutes to say their piece, whatever it may be. No community member has a right to heckle others as they speak. Period. Basic rules of civility teach us to show basic respect when others speak, but as we have seen, simple respect has been missing from these discussions.
Showing respect for a diversity of opinions is critical for us to move forward as a community. Everyone who shares a point of view on a local issue is doing so because they care about this community and want it to be a better place. But it takes hearing from people from all walks of life and points of view for our community to be able to make the best decisions possible to help the greatest number of people possible.
It’s also critical that we remember our elected officials are doing what they think is best for our community. We elect the members of our governing boards to educate themselves about the issues, hear diverse perspectives on the issues they decide, and synthesize that input into a decision that will make our community stronger. Showing basic respect for these leaders and the work they do, even when we disagree with them, is a hallmark of a democracy.
We also must rely upon and call upon our elected officials to set ground rules during public hearings and other meetings to create a safe space for everyone to speak. Clapping, booing, cheering, and heckling of speakers cannot be allowed and should not be tolerated. These acts have a chilling effect on community members who may have a unique point of view or may, understandably, already be nervous to speak in at a public meeting in a crowded room.
It’s also important to have a clear understanding of when it’s appropriate for community members to speak and offer their points of view and when it’s not. Public meetings are just one way to engage with our local governing processes. And not every meeting should be a public hearing for community members to weigh in—elected officials need meetings to deliberate, consider the issues, and move their own thinking forward.
Returning civility to our public discourse is critical for our community to move forward and function effectively. We hope future meetings will see a higher level of respect from everyone involved.