Are We Becoming Westeros?
The ancient Romans had a word for a virtue they much admired: gravitas. It means possessing dignity, seriousness, and depth of personality. I believe our current mayor, Bob Whalen, has gravitas. When he speaks, we should lend him our ears.
Some weeks ago during his State of the City address, he spoke out about what he saw as a creeping incivility in our town. He voiced concern about the quality of public discourse and said, “We spend far too much time attacking one another and not enough time attacking the issues and problems and challenges.” He went on to say he has seen an “unprecedented” display of personal attacks aimed at either elected officials or members of the public.
A few years ago, when I first started writing a column for this paper, Dave Hanson of the Daily Pilot was kind enough to do a piece on me. The last question he asked was my opinion of where Laguna Beach was headed. Fumbling about, I did not come up with much of an answer. Had I been prescient, Dave would have heard me tell of a town headed for bitter and mean-spirited divisions.
In a couple of ways, Laguna Beach seems like Westeros in “Game of Thrones.” True, we have no Army of the Dead, no Night King, no Unsullied. But we do seem to have warring houses, much like the Targaryens and the Lannisters, vying for the five Iron Thrones of the city council. Think of Liberate Laguna and Village Laguna who seem to be waging a bitter campaign against each other for the hearts and minds of our citizens. We have no fire-breathing dragons, but we do have a city councilman who has very fiery responses for those in opposition to him.
Most distressing to me, in this slide into incivility, are the comments that appear in the digital edition in response to news stories, letters to the editor, and columns. One in particular stands out. We do have a situation that needs attention: how to deal with the homeless in our town. One fellow wrote that we should load a barge with drugs and alcohol, which would of course lure all the homeless to that barge and, then, tow it out to sea. Hilarious.
Some commenters don’t leave their name, just their initials. How courageous. Ad hominem attacks are all too often the order of the day. How sad for the state of our democracy.
Some say, in defense of our increasing incivility, “Well, democracy is messy.” Yes, it often times is, but it need not be cruel and rage-filled. Democracy is based on the idea that ordinary people have extraordinary ability when they engage in respectful, fact-filled dialogue.
This is the gift the Greeks gave us as they met on the hill outside of Athens. Our increasing incivility puts us at risk of debasing this gift. If one is unhappy with the direction our city has taken, then use your reasoned, civil voice to encourage the election of folks more in line with your point of view.
The harmonious relationships that civility helps bring about have a positive impact on our overall well-being. Civility encourages us to accept the possibility that we may be wrong or may not have all the knowledge that we think we do.
Professor Sheila Suess Kennedy has said,” We cannot find common ground without civility, and we cannot solve our problems without finding common ground.”
Returning to Mayor Whalen’s State of the City speech, he also said, “I think we can do better.”
I think we can. I think we must.
James Utt is the author of “Laguna Tales and Boomer Wails.” He hopes that future city council meetings and comments to this paper will bring to mind more the Lincoln-Douglas debates and less the bickering of the Lords of Westeros.