Ordinary Citizens Model Civil Discourse


A strange thing happened while I was standing in line on the first day of early voting: Civility broke out among us.I took my place in line. An older white man, a young black woman and an elderly white woman stood just in front of me. Behind me, a middle-aged black woman and a twenty-something white man took up station. Before I knew what had happened, conversation broke out.

In my experience, most election line conversations steer away from the election itself. We tend to talk about our families, jobs, the length of the line, sports, anything at all but politics. Something else happened this time. All of my neighbors talked about the election.

In front of me, the white man and black woman exchanged views on the role of government. "Just remember," he said quietly, "a government big enough to take care of all your needs is also big enough to take all you have."

"I suppose so," she replied. "But I believe government is also the only tool we own that's big enough to look out for our interests against big business."

They went back and forth, even sharing who they intended to support for president. If each followed through on their plans, they would cancel each other's vote. Their conversation was content-filled. They even laughed a bit. From time to time the older white woman entered the conversation, agreeing first with one then the other of her temporary companions.

Behind me, the middle-aged black woman told the young white man why she was going to vote a certain way.

"I work hard, I try to save, I take care of people as a nurse," she said. "I've got children of my own. I just want to have someone in the White House who understands what it's like to try to make ends meet."

The young white man replied, "I'm single. To tell the truth, I've always had everything I need. I'm mostly worried about the war and my future."

They went on talking. I don't know if either changed the mind of the other, but I was struck by how carefully they listened to one another.

On cable television and talk radio, conversation rarely rises above the level of sound bites and shouting one another down. It's enough to make one weep. Here, though, on the town square of my small city, everyday American citizens modeled civil discourse, the kind of discourse the founders of our nation had in mind.

May their tribe increase!

Mike Smith is pastor at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appeared previously on his blog.

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