Olson: Disagree without being disagreeable
Perhaps it takes a former American diplomat to raise the question: Why has our political discourse become so uncivil? Lyndon Olson, the popular former Waco state representative and later Ambassador to Sweden, said many of those on the political stump and airwaves would draw failing marks if they were in the first grade.
“I’m not talking about your arithmetic or reading or penmanship grades,” Olson said in a speech at the Center for Public Policy Priorities annual Legacy Luncheon in Austin on Thursday, Nov. 12.
“I’m talking about the comportment column, with things such as ‘Exercises self-control; Respects the rights of others; Shows kindness and consideration for others; Indicates willingness to cooperate; Uses handkerchief (important even before the
“And,” Olson said, “my favorite was usually right up at the top of that six-week report card, and it’s of particular significance to our discussion: ‘Plays well with others.’
In first grade, “We were being taught about and graded on one of the most fundamental skills of our civilization: How to get along with others,” Olson told the high-powered audience of about 500. “There is a reason that ‘Plays well with others’ was one of the first things we were taught and evaluated on.”
Olson’s wasn’t the message one might expect from this year’s honoree of a group that strives to improve public policies to help those at the bottom of the economic food chain.
But Olson -- lauded by people across the political spectrum for his compassion, generosity, humor, and yes, civility – said he thought the subject was too important to ignore.
“Where did all this come from?” he asked. Those over age 40 “grew up in a political world with strong feelings and positions, yes. And we took swings at each other politically. But it didn’t come down to the moral equivalent of street brawls and knife fights.
“Politics has always been a contact sport, but the conflict didn’t permeate every aspect of our society and rise to today’s level of social and verbal hostility,” Olson said.
“It is very unhealthy,” Olson said. “And I’m not sure what to do about it. But I know it when I see it and hear it. And I know it is time we focus as much attention on our civil behavior as we do on achieving our personal and partisan agendas. . . .
“We live in an era of rudeness, in society in general, in the popular culture, and in our political life. Our culture today, in fact, rewards incivility, crudeness, and cynicism,” Olson said. “You can get on TV, get your own talk show or reality series if you out-shout and offend the other guy.
“Everyone screams, no one listens. We produce a lot of heat, but little light,” Olson said. “People don’t just disagree; the challenge to the other is a battle to the death,” Olson said.
“Character assassination, verbal abuse, obnoxious behavior, and an overbearing attention on scandal and titillation – all that isn’t just reserved to daytime TV anymore,” Olson said. “It’s the currency of prime-time, of late night, of cable news, of the Internet, and of society in general.”
He blamed a 24-hour news cycle that feeds “controversy, scandal, and easy answers to difficult questions. . . . instantaneous information and jarring entertainment values, not sober analysis or wisdom.”
Olson said much of the loss of civil, non-hostile discourse is due to a combination of much of the media “more prone to focus on the loudest, the most outrageous, and the most partisan actors, (and) the rise of the political consultant class.
“Candidates and campaigns are louder, more outrageous, and mega-partisan. Political consultants have helped create a permanent campaign, where politics takes precedence over governance. The political consultants (are) paid handsomely to cause strife and create conflict in order to raise hackles, money, and attention, fomenting issues to suit their agenda.
“It’s all about the message,” Olson said, “not the solution, not the negotiation, the debate, the compromise to move forward.”
The audience included a former governor, two former lieutenant governors, several present and former Texas legislators, two sitting members of Congress, and another former ambassador and Olson’s friend from their six years in the Texas House of Representatives -- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Schieffer, for whom Olson is campaign treasurer.
Olson called on his audience to help seek ways to upgrade public discourse.
“If civil discourse self-destructs,” he said, “we cannot move on the issues that really matter.”
For a video of Olson’s speech, and a written transcript, go to: http://www.cppp.org/events/event_details. php?eid=229