When I think about the future of the San Joaquin Valley, the list of things I worry about does not start with declining test scores in our schools or the challenges confronting the districts facing program improvement. Nor does it begin with the quality of the air we breathe, the availability of water for our growing population or the challenge of illegal immigration in an agricultural economy dependent on migrant labor. Even our infrastructure, crumbling from years of deferred maintenance and neglect, is not at the top of my list.
My greatest concern is about something much more fundamental—the state of civil society in our community.
Healthy communities have strong and vibrant civil societies. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m not sure ours does. In a healthy civil society, people work together to achieve shared public purposes—solving local problems and meeting community needs. Strong leaders invite conversation around issues that matter, creating space for people to listen to each other and debate public policy issues. The best leaders confer with others before making decisions and consciously commit themselves to building consensus. In strong and vibrant communities, effective leaders encourage reflection, embrace critique and welcome diverse points of view.
The problems we face in this community today are enormously complex and entrenched. They are also solvable if we think, plan and act together. This means we simply must learn to respect divergent perspectives and concede the goodwill of others when their views differ from our own.
It’s not that we haven’t tried. I’ve watched groups of caring citizens form committees, create task forces and serve on blue-ribbon panels that address tough issues. Putting aside their personal agendas, they have engaged in careful observation, thoughtful analysis and vigorous debate. Then they’ve issued recommendations that call for action, exactly what’s supposed to happen in healthy communities.
Too often, however, the response has been disappointing. Naysayers ignore the substance of these recommendations and attack the motives of those who developed them. Rather than being given careful and serious consideration by the community as a whole, thoughtful proposals are dismissed with pejorative labels by those with partisan commitments or self-interests. I hear the same thing in the angry calls to radio talk shows and see it in hyperbole-laced letters to the editor; both poison our civic conversations. When passion triumphs over reason, we get broken relationships, dysfunctional organizations and bad decisions.
Whether the cynics in our midst lack personal integrity, intellectual honesty or the ability to have civil discussions with others who may see the world differently, the results are the same. They help create climate of unfettered cynicism that destroys our joy in civic life, undermines our sense of community and weakens our social institutions. This climate also gives us ineffective leaders because many of the good ones calculate the personal costs of leadership, conclude they are too high and walk away.
Enough already. As a community, it’s time to challenge incivility and stop tolerating bullies. It’s time to fight back against cynicism and to hold each other accountable for the words we use and how we use them. It’s time to raise the level of discussion and public debate as we confront the problems of this Valley. It’s time for more people with moral courage to step up and lead as we search together for solutions to the challenges we face.
No single person can raise the standard for our public conversations, but a committed group of people could. We must. What is at stake here is not just the culture of civility, but the very fabric of our civil society.
D. Merrill Ewert is president of Fresno Pacific University. Ewert previously taught at Cornell University where he also served as associate dean and Director of Cornell Cooperative Extension. In addition to having spent seven years doing community development work in Africa, his resume includes faculty and administrative roles at the University of Maryland and Wheaton College. As a Fulbright Senior Scholar in the Philippines, Ewert’s research focused on how farmers’ organizations strengthen civil society.