Civility. Whether Americans are bemoaning a lack of it; failing to display any on social media, Little League baseball fields and elsewhere; or exhorting their politicians to show more of it, civility is a concept that is clearly having a moment in the national conversation.
On Tuesday, a diverse group of community members gathered at the Peaks to focus on civility, as well as understanding, empathy and thoughtful dialogue, while discussing various topics.
The event was co-hosted by three locals, Jacque Den Uyl, Mandy Miller and Joanne Young, and the Center for the Study of Liberty, an organization based in Indianapolis that, according to its web site, “supports building a free society by encouraging civil conversations among independent thinkers.”
The center has organized these gatherings — referred to as roundtables or civility dinners — in communities across the U.S., ranging from large cities like Chicago and New York to smaller places such as Little Rock, Arkansas, and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“With these programs, we are looking for people who have demonstrated that they are interested in ideas and that they are willing to talk about ideas, but they might not have a lot of opportunities to do that,” said Jennifer Thompson, the center’s executive director.
She continued, “What we are trying to do is not tell people how to use their skills or how to change the world. We think they are people who are already interested in changing the world. What they need is a space to experiment with ideas, to talk to people who they might not otherwise meet, people who have different viewpoints. A free society requires an open marketplace of ideas and that requires conversation.”
The concept appealed to Jacque Den Uyl.
“I had participated in two virtual reading groups held by the Center for the Study of Liberty, one which addressed civility,” Jacque Den Uyl said. “I discussed this hot topic with Telluride friends, including Joanne Young and Mandy Miller, and approached the Center to see if they would consider coming to Telluride.”
The organization agreed and sent as moderators of the event Thompson and Doug Den Uyl (Jacque’s brother-in-law), a board member of the Center and vice president at the Liberty Fund.
In the meantime, Young and Miller reached out to various locals, with the goal, Young said, of finding people “who would actually take the things that we learned home with them and bring them out into the community, so that this would be an ongoing project ... Between the three of us, we had a pretty diverse group.”
In all, organizers said, the event drew 25-plus people.
John Wontrobski was one of those in attendance. President of the Wilkinson Public Library board of directors, Wontrobski said he attended in part out of curiosity and partly because the dinner dovetails nicely with a library initiative, Tackling Tough Topics.
“[This] parallels what we are doing at the Wilkinson Public Library: trying to create a ‘village green’ where different types of people can come together to feel safe and comfortable talking to people they may not otherwise run into in their daily lives,” he said.
The large number of folks in attendance meant that the group was split between two tables, with the moderators subtly guiding conversations that were largely driven by the attendees themselves, Young said.
“At my table, we talked about local issues and the other table, they talked more about national issues,” she remarked.
If the evening was about increasing awareness of and promoting civility and civil discourse, it was a success, according to many of those in attendance.
“I thought it was time well spent,” Wontrobski said. “Any chance to be shown, in person, that people can disagree and still be civil about it, I think, is valuable.”
Jacque Den Uyl agreed.
“It got residents and leaders from the community of all ages and beliefs talking together,” she said, adding that a favorite moment came at the end of the evening, “when the seemingly oldest and seemingly youngest in the group, who were approaching a topic from completely different angles, continued the conversation respectfully after the dinner.”
Another attendee, Daniel Zemke echoed this: “People did not want to leave after the discussion concluded, which is a sign of success as they kept talking in smaller groups … If nothing else, we achieved a great exposure and understanding of issues related to civility and discourse in our current society. It was great to meet others who may not share the same views, and engage in thoughtful discussions.
“It was a start to something that could become bigger — more respectful community participation.”
And that’s what the organizers said they hope the evening achieved.
Although Telluride is “a close knit, yet diverse community, we have our own issues (housing, environment),” Jacque Den Uyl said. “We need to be able to discuss solutions in a productive way.”
Added Young, “In this beautiful town we live in — it’s so gorgeous and so wonderful and people come here and they’re so happy — we should be able to get together. We don’t have to agree on everything, that’s for sure, but I think having civil discourse is really important.”
For more information on Center for the Study of Liberty and its civility dinners, programming that is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, visit studyliberty.org.