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South Williamsport, PA
United States

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County Hall Corner: The Art of Argument

There are ebbs and flows in any organization; times when it seems that all hell has broken loose, and other times when there is hardly anything happening at all. This was evident with county government during the month of August. The weekly County Commissioners’ meeting agenda would have two or three action items, whereas it

There are ebbs and flows in any organization; times when it seems that all hell has broken loose, and other times when there is hardly anything happening at all. This was evident with county government during the month of August. The weekly County Commissioners’ meeting agenda would have two or three action items, whereas it normally would have a dozen or more. Attendance was so sparse that each visiting attendee took a whole row to themselves.

But, as the axiom goes, work fills volume of time allotted, so the commissioners determined to fill up an hour of meeting time one way or another. Invariably, this meant that something new would be brought up, and something is not worth bringing up unless it is somewhat controversial.

This happened at the August 15th meeting when Commissioner Mirabito suggested that Lycoming County had, in essence, a ‘one-party rule’ and that this was not in the best interests of the constituency. Of course, being members of this ‘one-party’ (Republican, for those who have not guessed), Commissioners McKernan and Mussare could not let this go unchallenged, and for the next twenty minutes or so, there was some entertaining exchange going on between the three county commissioners. It did not really amount to anything, just filler material in a no-blood-loss, tête-à-tête between colleagues.

Unfortunately, those who come to the commissioner meetings with grievances are not always so civil. Most of the times, these are individuals with a particular stone in their shoe, and they voice their concern with emotional passion backed by a few facts. If the stone is particularly annoying to them, they will keep coming back again and again with the intention of wearing down the commissioners through the ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ principle.

And then there are other times when the strength-in-numbers principle gets invoked, where the antagonists pack the house to standing room only at the ’commissioners’ meetings. When the spokesperson(s) take the podium, it is often with voices raised, accusations made, and even shades of behind-the-scenes dealings suggested. The commissioners do their best to respond, but no amount of reason makes a dent in the conviction of the true-believers who come to advocate their cause or concern.

What we see on the local level is evidenced 24/7 in our national entertainment and media sources. Journalistic objectivity has become a thing of the past as all major news media appear to align either right or left in their reporting. It seems as if no one can present an argument with civility and respect to those who believe differently anymore.

Imagine attempting something like the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 today. Abraham Lincoln was running against the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, to represent Illinois for the US Senate. The hot topic was slavery, and given that a civil war would break out over this in just three years; hence, it was obviously a volatile issue. For seven debates, one candidate would speak for 60 minutes, then the other candidate would speak for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate would be allowed a 30-minute rejoinder. These two men sharply differed, but patiently reasoned and responded to one another. Oh, and by the way, because of the crowds, these debates were held outside which meant that men had to project their voices as loud as they could, and the audiences stood for the three hours of the debate.

Today, our information must be presented in Twitter-sized sound bites, and it is much easier to call an opponent names or slurs than actually be willing to thoughtfully engage with those holding opposing viewpoints. Douglas defeated Lincoln and even ran against him for president two years later, but in the end, supported the president to keep the union together. If we care about our country, we should try to rediscover those old virtues of mutual respect and the humility to be willing to learn from others, even those we disagree with. We would all be better for it.

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