Public Comment

Commentary: Protecting the Silent Majority

By Jonathan DeYoe
Friday December 28, 2007

Berkeley residents are proud of our well-deserved reputation for being passionate about our beliefs and committed to our causes. Most of us are dedicated to the diverse individuals and opinions that make our community truly unique, and we have the courage in our convictions to defend them to the utmost of our abilities. 

Much of the time this leads to interesting dialogue and lively debate, the hallmarks of civil public discourse that are instrumental to the success of any democratic society. Nonetheless, all too often this critical element of civility falls to the wayside when the discussion turns to the issues that matter the most to us. Even the most reasonable among us can transform into a loud-mouthed bully when confronted with an opinion or point of view that runs contrary to what we are absolutely, positively, beyond the shadow of a doubt certain is right. We tend to forget that it’s virtually impossible to be right unless you can first consider the possibility that you may very well be wrong. 

Many of us have attended marathon Berkeley City Council meetings that have disintegrated into shouting matches. I myself have watched in amazement as a vocal minority of a dozen individuals claiming to represent truth and justice trampled on the interests of a silent majority who were either too busy leading their lives to show-up and make themselves heard, or too disenchanted by the degree of conflict one must tolerate to participate in the process. If individuals are forced out of the dialogue or choose not to engage because they find the experience so distasteful, we lose any hope of seeing a democratic outcome, because the opportunity for the average individual to participate is precisely what defines a democracy. 

I have a few tenants I’d like to offer as possible building blocks for fostering a more civil public discourse that leads to the type of positive outcomes most of us are striving so hard to achieve: 

1. If we truly want to be heard, we must first learn to listen respectfully to each other. Genuine community requires fostering open dialogue between diverse constituencies and interest groups. We all have a right to be speak our minds, not just the folks with the loudest voices. 

2. Don’t demonize the opposition. All too often, when tempers are flaring in the heat of the moment, the temptation to personalize an argument is hard to resist. We must take a deep breath before unleashing a diatribe against an individual simply because we’re convinced that he or she is wrong. It’s possible to question a point of view without attacking the individual for holding it. 

3. That old adage about “agreeing to disagree” offers a tremendous amount of wisdom. To my mind, how we go about achieving our goals is far more important than any specific outcome. Winning, especially when we are working hard to create a successful business community, cannot be a zero-sum game. None of us are winners if the folks sitting across from us leave the table feeling like losers. 

A new year offers us the chance for new beginnings. I look forward to engaging with you in many meaningful, passionate, engaging, and civil conversations in the coming months. 



Jonathan DeYoe is Government Affairs Chair of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce