Richard Greene

May 31, 2014

‘Cannibalism’ not right in civic discourse

Fort Worth’s Jim Wright tried to change things by resigning as House speaker 25 years ago.

I’ve been reflecting on the excellent May 21 story by this paper’s Tim Madigan marking the occasion of former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright being honored with Fort Worth’s most prestigious civic award.

My first thoughts were to wonder how long the former congressman had been feeling a profound sense of unfairness about the outcome of his historical decision 25 years ago in response to ethics allegations made against him.

His clear intention in becoming the first House speaker ever to resign was to be the catalyst in ending what he described as a “season of bad will” that had come to characterize relationships among his colleagues.

In his resignation speech, he called on both political parties “to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end.” In response, members of both parties in the chamber that day rose in thunderous ovation.

Yet the political warfare, as Madigan points out, has only intensified in the years since.

But there was something else in reading and rereading the article that I couldn’t help but identify with in my role as a contributor to the political discussion that regularly unfolds on these pages.

Unelected columnists don’t have the kind of franchise on the development of public policy that is assigned to those chosen by voters. We simply offer opinions on things and then invite readers to join the discussion as they wish.

It was that practice that kept leading me back to the journey of Jim Wright. The question I can’t seem to answer is whether the extraordinary personal rancor we witness in Washington is influencing discussion among the citizenry, or is it the other way around?

Do our representatives emulate our behavior, or have we taken on their practice of destructive speech in the way we address the issues of the day?

I receive lots of feedback from my commentaries that is good and useful agreement and disagreement with my take on matters ranging across the spectrum of current issues, elected officials and the candidates seeking high office.

But I also receive some really nasty personal assaults that are of no use at all in healthy debate that would otherwise honor the world’s most successful democracy’s spirit of free speech.

The same thing can be seen in comments posted on other columnists’ work and how frequently a discussion full of derogatory name-calling will erupt among readers defending their views.

I realize that saying that will likely invite an immediate reaction along the lines of how I just need to get over myself and realize that hateful personal portrayals will continue to appear here unless they violate the Star-Telegram’s policies on posting comments.

Even then, people are free to send emails, social media messages and other comments unbridled by anyone’s rules beyond the limits of human decency.

Maybe that is why I was so interested in reflecting upon the resolution that Wright had attempted in his unselfish sacrifice, which he hoped would produce the desired result in the ways we relate to each other.

In the place of demeaning our fellow citizens via insulting, offensive, profane and purely hateful terms, we should instead do what Wright asked and respect each other with a temperament of resolving disagreements without cannibalism.

If we did, maybe Wright’s appeal will have at last been met in some small way with the response he was hoping for.

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