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Eleven Ways to Remove Rudeness

Friday April 11, 2003

I have lived in Berkeley for 34 years and have been actively involved in civic life for the past six. I have been often dismayed and occasionally sickened by the low, mean level at which many civic participants operate, and I know that this grim atmosphere keeps many intelligent and interested residents away from the civic table. 

I am embarrassed by the city’s reputation as a bastion of unfree speech. Frequently, bad manners and undemocratic interactions are cloaked in righteous ideology, making it even harder to take a different position or approach. The pool of badly-behaving civic participants is wide and deep and includes politicians, citizen groups, neighborhood leaders, interest groups, city commissioners, even occasional city staff. 

There is a fairly constant stream of bossiness, rudeness, meanness, pre-emptive dismissal of ideas that are not one’s own, unwillingness to listen and unwillingness to discuss the issues at hand. Luckily for us all, we still have some rules and norms of civilized democratic discussion against which to judge and improve our bad behavior. 

So, since I am preaching on this occasion of the recent re-launch of our local newspaper, the Berkeley Daily Planet (which I hope will be fair-minded and informative as well as lively and interesting), I would like to set forth anew some guidelines for decency and serious debate in Berkeley civic life. Maybe we can some day reclaim our status as “Athens of the West.” 

1—Listen to the message rather than stereotype the messenger. 

2—Don’t shut down reasonable debate just because you can. 

3—Don’t use up the lion’s share of time during civic discussions. 

4—Listen seriously and respectfully to various viewpoints. 

5—Recognize that some opinions may actually be more informed than others, and may be more informed than you own. 

6—Recognize that passionately held positions aren’t always the best positions. 

7—Share information so that all stakeholders will be able to reach an informed opinion. 

8—Forgive and forget whenever possible. Don’t hold grudges. Try a fresh start. A negative encounter with someone five years ago should not necessarily guide your actions today. 

9—Do not confuse self-interest with the public good. Just because you would like to ride a scooter on the sidewalk does not mean it is good public policy. Recognize that self-interest can include a simple desire to hold onto control or power regardless of the issue at hand. 

10—Look to the present and the future. Just because a policy, program or person was (or was not) appropriate in the 1980s does not mean the same holds true for today and tomorrow. 

11—Maintain your sense of perspective and humor. Have a semblance of a life outside of civic life. 

Barbara Gilbert is a resident of Berkeley.