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March 21, 2019

3/6/2019 1:22:00 PM
A tragic flaw in our nature
John Doyle

Our current public discussion on a variety of issues reveals a flaw in our nature. It’s not a new revelation. The flaw is that we are willing to benefit ourselves individually at the expense of others. While this is not new, it does have a new urgency. It is compounded by its reflection in our democracy. Philosophers, scientists, writers and politicians have been debating this for centuries. Unfortunately, the results of not attending to the “flaw” have come home to roost.
All too often public discourse is a one-sided tirade. Public debate is no longer a debate. The whole intent of public dialogue is being “heard” as much as speaking out. For the public process of democracy to work, we are equally obliged to listen as to speak.
I was raised in a family that had debates at the dinner table most nights. Topics were open, but decorum was expected. We were all expected to listen to the other. This was not always comfortable, nor did it lead to consensus. The intent was to understand each other, not to agree. In most cases, understanding led to some level of acceptance and cooperation – and sometimes agreement.
This is the element that is missing from much of our current public dialogue: listening for understanding or speaking to be heard by others. Unacceptable views and behaviors should not dominate the discourse. There are many other issues that need addressing. Having contentious disagreement on some issues should not contaminate all interactions and inhibit our ability to find common ground.
The “tragic flaw” of personal interests overshadowing community interests is compounded by modern societal changes. Traditionally, we physically segregated ourselves into neighborhoods and barrios. The dominant new “neighborhood” segregation is media and social media. We listen and associate with like-minded people. While this holds up for a time, our common interests are broader than our “neighborhood.”
When democracy first emerged, concerns were raised. Can the general public govern itself for the common good? Can we have general agreement on “common good”? If the majority answers yes, democracy may survive, if a majority is enough.
Democracy is a messy process requiring participation. The way to off-set the “flaw in our nature” is to engage constructively in community debate and governance. Otherwise, the “flaws” of a few will govern the rest.

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