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Beacon blog: Civility run amok

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 18, 2010 - Don't expect the precision of science here, because this observation is subjective rather than scientific, and may be what Freud called wish fulfillment - dreaming or imagining that something one desires very much, consciously or unconsciously, is actually coming true.

In any event, reality or wish fulfillment, I've observed noteworthy behavior in recent meetings that is remarkable. Four times in the past 10 days I've participated in discussions devoted entirely to serious problems facing St. Louis, our nation and the globe, and at all four, touchy subject matter was on the agenda that three weeks ago might have started a fight. In the moment and in retrospect, attitudes presented in these congregations were as conciliatory as they were frank. Those who came were enthusiastic about being there, and many felt they shared a desire to effect a fundamental change in American society.

Why is that so remarkable? Simply because three weeks ago the nation found itself waking up from a public brawl, and quite possibly men and women of good will decided something needed doing. In contrast, in all four meetings, discussions proceeded in an atmosphere of civility and harmony.

Three of these meetings were open to the public; the other, which was off the record, was the brainchild of a brilliant and generous friend, a physician eager to examine issues and problems in a quiet atmosphere with his peers. My friend's meeting featured a prominent scientist at the podium, one who is an authority on and advocate for the critical need for sacrifice in the interest of sustaining the planet for succeeding generations. His opinions did not go unchallenged, but he and his challenger were able to disagree the issue with maturity and an acknowledgement, at least, of intelligence on both sides.

Two of the public meetings I attended were stamped with the name Danforth, which as far as I am concerned brings a certification of quality and a guarantee of civility. The first of the two meetings was at Washington University in St. Louis, and was sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics. John Danforth is priest, lawyer and politician, thus the establishment of this center has a personal quality as well as a rather cosmic one. It was audacious to conceive such a center in one of the fissures of our fractured present, for its purpose is to examine two worldviews that intersect not infrequently but often catastrophically, particularly when religious orthodoxy infects public policy.

The guest panelists were Shaun Casey, associate professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington; Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School's Center for Religion and Public Affairs; and Michael Cromartie, vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

The subject was the role religion played 2010 election. 

Next, a gathering at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center brought "home" to St. Louis the celebrated plant biologist Roger N. Beachy. He was on the spot in an installment of the center's series of serious conversations related to world hunger. Beachy came in from Washington where he is the director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, an organization dedicated to making agriculture a star in the national big picture, rather than bit player lurking behind the scenes.

Beachy was founding president of the plant science center, and as its director - besides performing or overseeing the redemptive research that spills from its labs - he made clear his alarm about of our planet's future, and spoke directly of the need for all of us who live in rich nations to help to put food into the bellies of the inhabitants of the myriad communities of the poor, not with charity but through scientific advancement.

Once again, the tone of the late afternoon was elevated, responsible, collegial. Some, perhaps even many, members of he audience may have held opinions opposed to Beachy's, but no one shouted him down, no one stalked out, no one shook her or his fist at him.

The St. Louis Beacon sponsors a series of gatherings called "Beacon and Eggs," and last week the proceedings were conducted at a recently opened restaurant called Nosh on Manchester Road in the heart of Maplewood. Nosh represents a culinary continuance of the renaissance of the town. Four stakeholders at the meeting told of problems Maplewood - an inner ring suburb - faced over the years. Education was a biggie. But believe it or not, the town, school officials and teachers turned the schools around in an almost miraculous fashion.

It was good to take note of successes in Maplewood - soul satisfying, inspiring. But what was most important was the goal-directed talking itself, the shared commitment to discuss serious matters that affect our neighbors and us, and through discussion to learn ways to effect improvements.

And guess what. Neither at Maplewood nor at any of the other places was there yelling, threatening or storming out in dudgeon.

As I acknowledged before, my observations are markedly unscientific, but on the basis of these four very different sessions - all conducted civilly - I find plenty of reasons for hope. It is based upon the apparent desire of my fellow citizens to make common cause and to maintain not only order but to blend into the mainstream currents of atmosphere of decorousness, comity, respect and goodwill.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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