It’s not the least bit surprising that our recent proposal about a civility initiative has generated some vigorous conversation. After all, this is Aspen, and to borrow a phrase, for every two Aspenites, there are at least three opinions on any subject. To be sure, we have received some very positive feedback about our proposal, but at the same time, there have been a few expressions of concern. And that is a good thing, because the whole idea of this initiative is to promote the best parts of our culture of open debate and to foster the widest possible engagement in the issues that affect all of our lives.
Over the past year, a group of us have come together informally to brainstorm about what we, and others, perceive is a growing sense of frustration with the ability of our community to address and solve problems in a constructive, respectful way. Vehemence and vitriol sometimes dominate public debate, and all too often, prevent any real problem solving from occurring. As a result, many in the community are feeling disenfranchised and are opting out of participating in the political process and other opportunities for engaging with our fellow citizens. A growing sense of cynicism and disconnectedness seems to have taken hold.
We are proposing the creation of a community discussion to examine the quality of our public discourse and to develop more respectful dialogue that, although vigorous and passionate, does not attack those who disagree with us. It’s all about enhancing the quality of life in our community, which is why so many of us have chosen to live here in the first place.
Communities across the nation are searching for constructive ways to restore respectful dialogue and collaboration. What we have learned is that a number of these communities have made great strides toward improving their collective health, happiness and prosperity through initiatives similar to the one we are proposing. Because we Aspenites have a strong democratic tradition and a deeply imbedded value of truly caring about one another, we should be able to acknowledge our issues and identify tangible solutions.
Energetic and passionate debate is no stranger to Aspen. We have no intention of trying to change that. We also have no intention of stifling, limiting, or trying to control the volume, passion, subject matter, or any other aspect of expression. Nor would we presume to shape or control anyone’s personal opinion or modify his or her position to fit some pre-existing conception of what is, or is not, considered politically correct.
What our group believes, based on formal and informal input from a variety of community members, is that it would be worth exploring ways to reweave the civic fabric of our town — including ways that have proven successful for other small communities. To our handful of critics, we say that we too would be appalled if our community were to become as “bland as oatmeal.” All of us value the eclectic and feisty cast of characters with unique personalities who express varying and passionate opinions about our town. There is no thought whatsoever to creating a “civility police” to encourage or compel unified thought or behavior — as if that were even possible.
The diversity of opinions and colorful expressions about what is best for our community makes Aspen unique and wonderful. Do we have the complexity or severity of problems faced by many cities? Certainly not. If we did, we probably would not be counting our blessings for being able to live here. Does that mean we should not continually aim to improve our overall well-being? Certainly not. That is the essence of what our initiative is about — exploring a better way to be open and respectful of each other as we strive to find common ground.
We believe our initiative is aligned with the shared vision and goals of our community, including those developed by the Aspen City Council and the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners. The county’s strategic plan articulates values of “open communication,” “collaboration” and “stewardship,” and its success factor of “improved community engagement and participation.”
One of the city’s goals is to “create common ground to reduce stratification in the community.” If we mean the talk, let’s at least discuss coming together to walk the walk.
The following individuals are championing the civility initiative. They are: BJ Adams, Stan Clauson, Nina Eisenstat, Terry Hale, Michael Kinsley, Helen Klanderud, Cristal Logan, Amy Margerum, George Newman, Brooke Peterson and John Sarpa.