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Admonition for New Office Holders, Community Leaders and All of Us

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Hunter
January 25, 2020

It’s over. The election’s over. Now what?

Hopefully, the answer to that question is not, “More of the same.”

The contention and lack of tolerance in political circles and public dialogue has reached a boiling point. Too many so-called leaders are not only practicing this but encouraging it as well.

Some would say, “Lighten up. It’s always been that way, sometimes even worse.”

That may or may not be true, but the truth is that it doesn’t have to be that way. The truth is that it shouldn’t be that way. The truth is that cooperative attitudes result in better and more long-lasting public policy. The worst truth is that the example we’re setting can infuse the same incivility in generations to follow.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”

Those we label as conservatives fear those we label as liberals because “they’ll take away our Second Amendment rights.” Liberals fear conservatives because “they’ll take away support for the poor and disregard environmental concerns.”

And by the way, what is it with these labels we paste on each other? Don’t we all aspire to the same ultimate goals?

These often misplaced labels and exaggerated fears are seized upon by some political candidates for selfish political advancement. Then, the rest of us expand on their stories and take up our polarized posts.

When we look for examples of political civility we should recall the days of Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s practice of walking to Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen’s office to discuss issues of the day instead of authoritatively summoning Senator Dirksen to his office. This small act of goodwill made a huge difference in their relationship.

We should recall the days when Democratic U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill would sit with Republican President Ronald Reagan and work out sensible compromise legislation for the benefit of the Americans they both served.

They didn’t fear each other. They respected each other. The reason they respected each other was because they took time to get to know each other and to listen to each other’s points of view in a setting of earnest dialogue.

Out of that practice comes trust and understanding. Fear dissipates.

In the broader scene of religious, cultural and racial prejudice, we must remember just how far fear can take us.

Think of the six million Jewish people eliminated in World War II, the tyrannical ethnic cleansing going on in some parts of today’s world, the shootings and bombings around the world and in our own United States.

Certainly, it hits home as we contemplate our religious prejudice, cultural cluelessness, and racial resentment. The recent insurrection at the Capitol is the most noticeable, but just one of many such incidents.

How should we address this? How can we overcome the destructive acts of violence and even the seemingly harmless political vindictiveness we observe in political campaigns and in the halls of government?

The answer is that it’s an individual matter.

Perhaps we could look again to the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as portrayed in the 1982 Academy Award winning motion picture Gandhi.

During the partitioning of India after its independence movement from British rule, the Muslims on the Indian side began migrating to the new nation of Pakistan and the Hindus in Pakistani territory began moving to the Indian side. As they crossed paths, name calling soon became rock throwing and then village burning. It saddened and disgusted the Mahatma.

One morning the American photographer, Margaret Bourke-White, who had been documenting Gandhi’s movements and activities, asked, “Now where are you going, Mr. Gandhi?”

“Well, I’m going over there (Pakistan) and then I’m coming back here (India) and I’m going to tell the people that the only devils in this world are those running ‘round in our own hearts.”

“So, what kind of a warrior have you been in these battles of the heart, Mr. Gandhi,” asked the photographer.

With an amusing smile on his face, he responded, “Not a very good one. That is why I’m so tolerant of all those other scoundrels out there.”

Every time I speak to an audience on civility and every semester, as I greet my new students at the university, I distribute a pocketable brass coin as a keepsake. On one side of the coin is the image of an elegant dove. On the other side is the following quotation by Mark Twain: “Kindness—the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Perhaps each of us could inspect our own hearts and follow Gandhi’s example as well as the universally applicable words of Mark Twain. Our examples and our words can make a difference for generations to come.


Author: Robert Hunter is a longtime government and nonprofit leader in Utah and current advocate for United Way of Northern Utah, who teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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