Program Report: Rotarian and former NC Supreme Court Justice Willis Whichard on Civility in Public Discourse

As I was preparing to write this report, I did two things, the first I’m not proud of and the second I hope I can persuade everyone reading this to do.

First, I sent a snarky reply to a Facebook post of a former student of mine who is at the opposite end of the political scale from me.

There’s a lot of that kind of thing going on, I’m afraid…on the internet, on TV, in the newspapers and sometimes at the dinner table.

The second thing I did was read the speech that Justice Whichard delivered to us on Civility. Because there were so many people who requested copies of it, Executive Secretary Sharon distributed it to the entire Rotary mailing list with Justice Whichard’s permission. Even though it triggered my shame for being uncivil on Facebook, I have to say that this was one of the most moving and well prepared presentations I have heard in all my years as a Rotarian and it was made by a guy whose list of accomplishments have left him nothing further to prove.

Why was it so good and why does it deserve to be read? First, Justice Whichard is a great storyteller and examples he gave range from the tragic (Hamilton’s death at the hands of Burr) to the merely discourteous (Obama called a liar during a State-of-the-Union.) There were stories of reconciliation (Jefferson and Adams) and stories of the warm relationships of political opponents (Reagan and Tripp O’Neil.) He included stories from his own political history of opposition and reconciliation as well.

He invoked names from more recent North Carolina history to counter a growing trend of anti-intellectualism including Frank Graham, Bill Friday and Bill Aycock, to make the point that the Jeffersonian answer to objectionable speech is more and better speech, not repression of speech.

He also quotes the Czech dissident, statesman and writer, Vaclav Havel, to make the point that the fullest purpose of civil discourse is to educate ourselves as well as others.

Even my best effort can only make this report a pale reflection of the speech, so again I urge you to read it. If you’ve lost track of it, you can click here and get it.  I would also suggest reading the two articles from last May’s Rotarian Magazine, the first on Civility and the second on the Four Way Test. These were recommended by Dallas Stallings in his introduction to this series of programs during the previous meeting. Dallas also introduced Justice Whichard, although this was hardly needed.

This will be a hard act to follow but anyone who was skeptical about how good a program about civility could be, will be looking forward to next week’s program featuring Christopher and David Gergen and with Sam Miglarese wrapping it up on week three.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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