This Week’s Column: Common Ground and Civil Discourse

Earlier this week on this blog, I shared a traditional toast offered annually at the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels’ Derby Eve Banquet.


The toast, written in honor of the Colonels in 1937, says in part: I give you a man dedicated to the good things of life, to the gentle, the heartfelt things, to good living, and to the kindly rites with which it is surrounded. In all the clash of a plangent world he holds firm to his ideal – a gracious existence in that country of content “where slower clocks strike happier hours.”

I’ll admit, I had to look up the word “plangent,” and learned that basically it means a loud reverberating sound. In other words, even in 1937, the author was concerned about the hubbub and chaos of an increasingly busy society, or as he later described it, a trying world darkened by hate and misunderstanding. Somehow sounds strangely similar to the modern world in which we live today.

In toasting the Kentucky Colonels, a society known for its philanthropic and social virtues, the 1930s era author seemed to hearken back to a calmer, gentler time. Modern technology and the 24-hour news cycle seem to facilitate near-rabid and vocal disagreement over the daily issues in our world.

From animal rights in Ohio, to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the bitter acrimony between R’s and D’s in Congress, polite discourse feels like a dying art. In the context of the acrimony and plangent argument over these issues, picturing oneself sipping Kentucky Bourbon and admiring a stout thoroughbred stallion in the pasture of yesteryear seems fairly preferable.

In sharing some insight from our reporting on these stories on the popular website The Huffington Post last week, I was struck not so much by the near-violence of some web-commenters, but by the fact that one commenter in particular took time to commend me for a reasoned and civil debate on the issue. While the two of us disagreed on the substance of our positions, this person and I shared a sense of uniqueness in the fact that we could calmly share our views and advance our arguments without the virtual vitriol so commonplace online and in the popular press today.

Steven Covey in his hallmark book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” speaks of seeking first to understand, then to be understood. His theory is that if I try to understand my fellow man before attempting to convince them of my idea or position, I can better achieve my intended goal because we’ll have common understanding from which to communicate. In my experience, that holds mostly true. It’s also been my experience that there exists a subset of society, tending to actively participate in online discussions of controversial issues, who will never venture to understand the perspective of anyone other than themselves. With those folks, I’ll most likely never find that common ground. With the broad majority of intelligent and reasoned beings, however, finding the content of common understanding is a useful first step.

When remembering the “good ‘ole days,” it’s easy to overplay the frustrations and vagaries of today and to oversell the virtue and harmony of yesteryear. I’m a modern man, without a doubt, firmly ensconced in the iPhone era.

Even so, like my fellow Kentucky Colonel of over 70 years ago, I celebrate what remains of those virtues in which men find gallant faith and of the good men might distill from life, and hope more of us can find common ground in the civil discourse over today’s most challenging issues.