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COLUMN: Civility in politics

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COLUMN: Civility in politics

We are now in the final days of a monumental presidential campaign that many pundits have called the most negative, divisive and mean-spirited campaign in American history. Sadly, we see the same approach being used in campaigns for state offices around the country that mirrors the tone and tactics of national races.
I had a conversation with a woman who lives in the Gainesville District yesterday that put this era of divisive politics in clear perspective. She said that these highly charged negative campaigns made her “very sad that there was no respect or civility in politics anymore, and it does not appear that anything is out of bounds for one candidate or another to attack each other on.”
That statement really resonated with me. Political differences have become the rationalization for engaging in what many call the “politics of personal destruction.”
My Mom taught me at a very early age that words mean something, and I had better be doggone careful how I used them. I have tried to live by that principle in my personal life, my business career, and now in my political life.
Make no mistake: I am a fighter for the things I believe in.
But I think the time has come for all of us to collectively take a breath, step back, and reevaluate how we intend to approach political and philosophical disagreements going forward.
It will not be easy.
Our Constitution grants broad protections for all of us to exercise free speech. It is a foundational principle in a democracy that permits us to say virtually anything we want in expressing our disagreement with others in the political world.
In my view, the right of free speech does not mean we have to engage in this politics of personal destruction at every turn.
It’s hard not to get mad at politicians who do things we disagree with. That is particularly true with decisions by our leaders that impact our economic well-being and our quality of life. We get passionate about those issues.
But I think the rhetoric about our policy disagreements here in Prince William County has reached a point that has become so personal, so divisive, and so corrosive that it undermines our ability to disagree on issues and work to find a solution.
In the politics of personal destruction arena, there is no compromise, other than destroying those that may disagree with our political views.
I would respectfully ask that everyone involved in politics – from elected officials to supporter of candidates to the voter – to refrain from these personal attacks against those who disagree. Let’s keep the discussion about the policies, not personalities.
Let’s avoid the temptation to personally ridicule, mock, or attack others who hold different views that we do.
Here in Prince William County, I know that my colleagues on the Board of County Supervisors are good people. They are all public servants who have made a personal sacrifice to serve the public with the views about government and its role in our lives that guides the decisions we are required to make virtually ever week.
Every citizen has the right to disagree with any of those decisions. We have deep philosophical divisions among ourselves on the Board, and those differences often lead to sharp disagreements. I think I understand as well as anyone the frustration experienced when those sharp disagreements become personally punitive.
But I can personally attest that even though disagreements among Board members and personal feelings towards one another can be strongly held, every one of my colleagues on the Board are good, decent, and dedicated public servants.
They are committed to serving the families in Prince William County.
Mistakes are made, and we need to be held to account for those mistakes whenever they occur.
It has been my observation, however, that some of the comments on local blogs have become forums for lashing out and personally attacking both politicians and private citizens who serve in volunteer positions in the County. Being able to make these comments anonymously gives enormous freedom to say things we might not otherwise say in public.
We can do better than that, and I would ask those who comment in the political arena to refrain from such personal attacks on others. Strong criticism on policies and issues are fair game, but mean-spirited personal attacks should not be.
Blogs serve a very important role in educating citizens about government, and local blogs in particular are a valuable forum for holding the Board to account for decisions made on important public policy issues. It is, in every sense, the expression of opinions and views, often anonymously, that is the hallmark of our free speech protections in the Constitution.
Having the freedom to anonymously attack others in any way we choose, whether our elected officials or private citizens who volunteer to serve our community, does not mean we should exercise our freedom of speech in that way.
I admit that some of the personal attacks on me, on my positions on issues, my personal style, my religion, and my personal life have been deeply discouraging. It is that experience that convinces me that these same kinds of personal attacks both on my colleagues and citizens who volunteer should be eliminated from our discussions on the issues where we happen to disagree.
In my personal opinion, the time has come for all of us to elevate the dialogue on politics. That requires restraint to limit our disagreements to the arguments for or against a public policy and refrain from the personal attacks.
My Mom was right: Words mean something and we should be careful how we use them.

- Peter Candland (R) is the Gainesville District supervisor
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