Encouraging civility in government and community

Published 10:00 pm Friday, January 9, 2015

“Wright to the Point”
By Jim Wright, Mayor, Town of Tryon
Encouraging civility in government and community

A couple of years ago, a community leader told me her vision for elected officials is to improve civility in government. I agree, though I have found this difficult to act on.

What better time to write about civility than the beginning of the new year? This is a hard column to write, though, and not sound “preachy.” Instead, I intend it to be thought provoking.

What is civility? Civility, to me, is more that treating others as you would expect to be treated, if for no other reason than some people have low expectations for how they should be treated!

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Maybe it is conducting yourself as though someone for whom you have a great respect (your mother or father, the pope, the Dalai Lama or another leader you admire) were standing beside you at all times. Most religions have some form of civility credo: “do unto others…” Why can’t the credo be “treat others better than you expect to be treated?” That would create a continuing expectation of better treatment of all.

To bring this to the local level, in the past year at town council meetings, there have been several examples of uncivil behavior. I have been publicly called a liar. The person who did that subsequently apologized privately, and then later publicly, and I have accepted the apology.

The council and I were addressed by another person with the comment, “Any 6-year-old-idiot with a computer should have known that was wrong.” We had made a mistake and had already acknowledged the mistake.

Yet another person, a local business owner, spent about 15 minutes vigorously shaking his finger, mostly in my face, but also in the faces of the remainder of the council while trying to make his point. All that behavior is outside what I define as being civil to one another.

I’ve also frequently wondered why people who are asking you to do something for them are not concerned about making you mad in the process? Most of the uncivil comments to us in town council meetings have been part of requests for us to take action on that person’s behalf. Would you give your heart surgeon a good cussing just before going under the knife?

I occasionally go to the county commisssion meetings and some of the behaviors there are uncivil, too, from all sides and all perspectives. Why can’t we can disagree and have strong debate without being disagreeable or attacking the other party?

Additionally, I believe that we have a duty to respect those who serve as elected officials, as well as those who are appointed and those who are hired by them. The democratic process provides a way for us to change those whose actions we don’t agree with when the next election is held. In the meantime, it doesn’t mean we can show disrespect to those with whom we disagree! Attending some of our governmental meetings makes it easy for me to understand why many people decline to run for office.

In addition to the people-to-people behaviors that I have highlighted above, a reasonable number of the complaints the town receives concern animals. The failure to properly manage our animals also shows disrespect to neighbors and other town citizens.

If dogs, for example, are off leash and wandering the streets causing both fear and actual damage to other people or their pets, it’s not the dog’s fault. It is, in all cases, the failure of some human’s responsibility. In some cases the animals are tied or fenced outside, barking miserably for hours on end while disturbing the neighborhood.

Keys to civility as I see them:

  • Self respect, if you don’t respect yourself, who will?
  • Respect for others, even those who are different from you
  • Respect for leaders, even those you don’t agree with
  • Trust in others’ intentions to do what they say they will do
  • Respect for our laws, so if the sign says no u-turns in front of the post office, don’t make them!
  • Thinking about why you behave or believe what you do
  • Changing behaviors and beliefs that are uncivil
  • Finding someone who is a role model for civility to you
  • Observing and emulating their behaviors

I hope some of us will add “improving behavior toward others” to our list of resolutions for the new year.

It is time again to align our behaviors toward each other to our town’s declared motto, “The Friendliest Town in the South.”

Finally, thanks to Judd Daniel, Michael Baughman and the TDDA for another successful Tryon Midnight celebration. Thanks, too, to the Polk County Community Foundation for the grant supporting the event. It was a great community event!

Happy New Year!