Balancing Passion And Reason

Few occasions bring out the worst in folks than a public meeting. At any moment, an agenda item brought before a city council, school board or other public forum can suddenly erupt into a debate, a heated argument or a fist fight. It might be followed by a request to leave, an escort from the premises or even an arrest.

What is it about ideas, policies and regulations that must be discussed and deliberated upon openly in our democracy that inflames some people? I have witnessed an unpleasant exchange over something as minor as two slightly different arrangements for a proposed set of public tennis courts. (Note to architects: please show only your best plan.)

Peace Vs. Pandemonium

On April 5, 1909, The New York Times reported on a protest at the venerable City Club, where vigilant citizens were opposing a city bill giving the National Academy of Arts a portion of Central Park land to build a gallery. “The proponents of the [land] grab tell us that there will be an art display in the building, which will be a benefit to the people, but this does not compensate for the fresh air that you need in this public playground.” Passions were heightened, but the result was a spirited debate among respectful opponents, rather than a personal assault on a hated enemy.

Contrast the 1909 protest with the following recent incidents:

· In 2007, a former Carson, Calif., council member slapped a supporter of the mayor, who was fighting a recall effort, in the back of the head with a handful of papers during a council meeting. It was all caught on video.

· In 2008, a shouting match, including threats of bodily harm, erupted in a meeting between a Detroit mayor’s staff member and a pension-board trustee. The aggrieved parties appeared on the TV news that evening, disparaging each other for all to see.

The Breakdown

Whether calm and collectedness exist or tempers threaten, two fundamental human aspects interlock at various levels of intensity–intellect and emotion (see Figure). Further, they are expressed in two dimensions–personal and interpersonal. This mixing produces four general conditions in each dimension–presenting, appealing, rambling and ranting in the personal dimension; discussion, debate, annoyance and fighting in the interpersonal.

The ideal situation in democratic public discourse is framed by a high degree of rationality and low levels of emotion–the classic “cooler heads prevailed.” A speaker dispassionately (although not boringly, we hope) presents information matter-of-factly. An equally rational discussion follows between or among the participants. Reports from department heads at the monthly agency or council meetings typify this condition.

Adding an emotional charge to the presentation or discussion is not necessarily bad. Think of the impassioned appeals in speeches made by our best political and moral leaders, and their profound, positive impact on the governance process. The New York Times story, above, and the give-and-take in local councils and state and federal legislatures serve as apt examples.

It is the subtraction of rationality, however, that reduces discussions and debates to the less-attractive facets of human interaction. While low rationality and emotion result in rambling and annoyance, they do not produce violence: think of the slightly addled citizen who invariable rises to express harmless opinions during the public comments portion of a meeting. Some observers even may be amused, although hopefully with an added dash of empathy.

Proceed With Caution

The real danger lies in the combination of low rationality and high emotion. Dynamite is relatively stable until the fuse is lit. If one person’s rant inflames another’s ire, then “all hell breaks loose,” and fight night is on, soon to appear on YouTube or the evening news (or both, if it’s really juicy).

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