By Sutherland Staff

This week I want to talk about civility and public dialogue. Last Friday, you may have heard, Sutherland Institute hosted an immigration debate down in Utah County. We had two great teams with well-informed people debating the resolution “Resolved: Utah should enforce federal immigration laws.”

The venue was full of people, hundreds of audience members, and the media was well-represented. It was a big deal. Normally, at these sorts of events, we would collect contact information from audience members as the price of admission. We didn’t do that this time and the seating was open – anyone could walk in, sit down and listen.

I thought the panelists did a fine job with decorum, even though the audience struggled. All throughout the two-and-a-half-hour program audience members were catcalling and yelling random comments. While it came from across the room, by far the most vocal group was those audience members supporting Representative Sandstrom’s team and an Arizona-style approach to enforcing federal immigration laws.

After the program concluded, several people rushed to the stage to talk with me. Of the dozens who shook my hand and thanked me, two women lectured me sternly for my incivility. Their comments included words such as arrogant, repugnant, and condescending. I thought to myself, what are they talking about?

I can assume a few reasons for their reprimands. First, maybe I did a good job and they didn’t appreciate that, being on the other side of the issue. Or maybe what I call “Utah nice” doesn’t permit anyone to speak plainly or boldly without being accused of incivility. But that doesn’t explain why the Sandstrom side of the audience felt so comfortable shouting comments during the debate and otherwise disrupting the event. If anyone was uncivil surely it was those parts of the audience.

So I watched the video of my remarks. Maybe it was me? Maybe I said something offensive? But I still didn’t see it. None of my fellow panelists said anything to me. No one from the media questioned my words or my tone. In fact, it was just the opposite reaction from the media.

So when the topic is civility I always look for guidance from Stephen Carter’s book by the same name. It reminds me of several aspects of true civility, such as:

Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not. (That’s certainly a big lesson to learn in the immigration debate generally.)

Civility requires that we sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know.

Civility has two parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk.

Civility creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.
And then I hit this point: Civility requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others. Maybe that’s where I failed? I know I respected my fellow panelists, but maybe I didn’t express that respect sufficiently?

Then again, I thought I lived up to the next principle of civility: Civility allows criticism of others, and sometimes even requires it, but the criticism should always be civil.

Honestly, I think I did that. Well, you can see for yourself on the Sutherland website. We’ve posted the video of the full debate as well as my own remarks.

I learned a lot about us, Utahns, from that debate. I learned that most of the people in that room last Friday don’t really understand what a formal debate is. I also learned that so many of us don’t want to listen, we just want to be heard on this issue of immigration. Let’s hope that our state Legislature can do better on civility than many of their constituents as they seek lasting solutions for Utah’s undocumented immigrant community.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.

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