Georgetown’s president speaks out on civil discourse

By Kenneth Kowald

(Note: This is the conclusion of my column of Aug. 2, based on “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats.)

We are getting to a vicious point in our public discourse where the extremists on the left are coming very close to the extremists on the right to form a terrible circle of contempt for democratic values. Anarchy is the end point of both these movements, whether it is rioting or negativism without relief.

There is hope, I believe. The best, who according to William Butler Yeats “lack all conviction,” are beginning to speak out, now that the discourse has sunk to such an awful low.

Not long ago, a law student at Georgetown University, the oldest Jesuit and Roman Catholic university in the country, founded in 1789, spoke before a congressional committee about contraceptive coverage in health care. Her position was her own. She was vilified by such commentators as Rush Limbaugh. He called her a “slut.” I assume he speaks from knowledge.

If he had bothered to find out, he would have known that this young woman grew up in a rural farming community in central Pennsylvania. Her family is described as very observant conservative Christian and her father is a pastor.

Very shortly after Limbaugh’s ignorant tirade and those of others of his ilk, the president of Georgetown — which does not support what the student, Sandra Fluke, spoke in favor of — wrote a “Message to the Georgetown Community.”

John J. DeGioia’s brief but eloquent and profound comments are worth reading in full. I am keeping a copy next to my copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

In part, he wrote this of his student: “She was respectful, sincere and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people.” He called the comments of many of her opponents “misogynistic, vitriolic and a misrepresentation” of what Ms. Fluke said.

Of public discourse on issues, DeGioia, wrote: “We have learned through painful experience that we must respect one another and we acknowledge that the best way to confront our differences is through constructive public debate. At times, the exercise of one person’s freedom may conflict with another’s. As Americans, we accept that the only answer to our differences is further engagement.”

He quoted St. Augustine on civil discourse: “Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there is no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.”

The president of Georgetown concluded his message: “The values that hold us together as a people require nothing less than eternal vigilance. This is the moment to stand for the values of civility in our engagement with one another.”

The words of St. Augustine and John J. DeGioia should be read, I believe, any time we feel that we are losing our way in the greatest democracy on earth.

The “rough beast” of division and anarchy will not to be born if enough of us stand up and make ourselves heard against the anarchy of the extremes of left and right.

It is appropriate that DeGioia translates from Italian as “Of Joy.”

It is with joy, admiration and deep thanks that I commend him for the great values he has reminded us of so majestically.

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