Civil Discourse

By Ricahrd Marinucci

A long time ago Saturday Night Live had a fairly regular comedy sketch that parodied a debate on the long-running news show 60 Minutes. In the skit, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain would discuss a variety of topics taking opposing viewpoints. Invariably Aykroyd would say, “Jane, you ignorant slut!” It was a very funny bit, and I think the initial insult was designed to gain an edge and distract from the coming comments. Fast forward to today, and it seems that many comments made in response to controversial issues start with some type of derogatory comment about the individual who did the writing.

Recently a good friend of mine, Billy Hayes, wrote an article in which his point was that fire prevention needs more attention. In his article, he referenced “fire porn,” the pictures that attract many of us in the fire service, to make a point that there is nowhere near equal billing for fire prevention and suppression. After being published, many people chose to make comments or send emails to him. Some thought it appropriate to insult him personally before making their position statement. What is the point of that? Does it make the writer feel more important or that he “wins” the argument if he gets personal and derogatory?

The Internet has certainly allowed people to write whatever they feel—either because they can remain anonymous or because there is no editor to quash inappropriate material. Maybe people have sent letters to the editor commenting on articles, but they were weeded out if they were deemed inappropriate for publication. I am not sure if it is the anonymity or editorial work, but it would be much more civil if people could agree to disagree without the personal attacks. It is OK to go after the issue and not the person.

We should be able to discuss the many issues and challenges that face the fire service without resorting to childish name calling. We should have room for disagreement. And because we are not all the same, we should be entitled to differing opinions without being subject to demeaning retorts. Maybe we are just becoming a product of our environments.

As I watch news reports and editorials or listen to talk radio, I often hear personal insults and raised voices. Perhaps that is what gets people’s attention and improves ratings. It makes for good entertainment. Possibly, people have adopted that theory when responding to controversial issues so they get attention and their voices are heard. Of course, I have never believed that you win the argument by shouting. I also turn a deaf ear to comments preceded by personal insults.

Or, maybe some people are mimicking the things they see and hear in politics. We are in the middle of midterm elections, and the attack ads are brutal. Because they are repeated so often, we may be getting conditioned to the methodology. We also see people behaving badly on all levels of government. There seems to be a lack of civility in Congress. Local city councils and government boards can be found arguing about most anything with little regard for the facts. Citizens who are provided the opportunity to make public comments may feel that it is their opportunity to insult members of the elected body. This seems to be more frequent and wide-spread than in the past. Could all of this be creating a culture of accepting this type of behavior?

I am all for debate. I don’t want everyone to agree with me. I do have a tendency to disregard the content of a discussion once things get personal. Someone once told me that I should never argue with idiots because they bring you down to their level and then beat you with experience. However, often there are good points being made but are lost when the discourse ceases to be civil. I hope I don’t get any personal attacks about this, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. I would much prefer a logical, organized debate that makes me think about a particular topic so I can make a reasoned decision and develop an opinion that goes beyond the personal attacks. I also hope that the possibility of name calling and insults doesn’t keep those with valuable opinions and viewpoints from offering up their perspective.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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