Benjamin: Let us choose civility

Guest ColumnistMarch 25, 2014 

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

— Once upon a time, an old man who was teaching his grandson about life explained: “There is a battle raging inside of me, a terrible fight between two wolves.

“One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.

“The other is good,” he continued. “He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

“There is a battle raging inside of me. It rages inside of everyone in our village, inside every person since time began, and it rages inside of you.”

Frightened, the boy asked, “But, Grandfather, which wolf will win?”

The old man reached out with weathered arms embracing his grandson to comfort him and, holding him close, answered: “Whichever one you feed, child. Whichever one you feed.”

Earlier this month, I pledged to lead an effort to help bring civility back to our civic discourse, because while I believe that every citizen is responsible for helping maintain a positive and productive public debate, a higher duty is owed by our elected officials, and you deserve better from us.

You deserve better because the division we face is a battle between two wolves raging inside of all of us. It has raged inside of every person since the beginning of time. It rages inside of you and me, and in the end, the one that wins is whichever one you feed.

It’s not about Bull Street or baseball or even Columbia. It’s bigger than that. It’s the name calling and wild accusations, the victory-at-all-costs attitude on display across our nation from school boards to state legislatures, city councils to Congress. It’s a bitter pill for anyone to swallow, and it’s making all of us petty and mean.

The answer is civility — rules not of courtesy or etiquette but rather of citizenship: making the commitment to respect each other as citizens if not as individuals and putting the common good before our personal ambitions. It’s about recognizing that whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together, and building our collective future is more important than winning an argument.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen that sense of citizenship on display. I saw it last week when a number of my fellow City Council members joined me in taking a small but important first step by signing a Voluntary Code of Civil Public Discourse and Pledge of Professional Conduct. I’ve seen it repeatedly since, as community and business leaders, neighborhood groups and everyday citizens have begun to step forward looking for ways to get involved, asking: “What can I do to help?”

That gives me hope, and in the battle raging inside us, hope is a powerful weapon. Fear huddles us together to ward off the dangerous world outside, telling us to be satisfied with what we have because we could lose it all tomorrow. But hope shapes us and sustains us. It gives us the strength to cast aside distrust and division and inspires us to build a more perfect union.

There is a battle between two wolves raging inside of all of us. It has raged inside of every person since the beginning of time. It rages inside of you and me, and in the end, the one that wins is whichever one you feed.

The choice is ours. Let us choose civility.

Let us choose not only to accept and respect minority opinions and honest disagreement, but to embrace them, to encourage them and to use them to make our ideas, our city and ourselves better. And when our disagreements pass, we will find ourselves stronger for having weathered the storm.

Let us choose civility. Let us choose unity. Let us choose hope.

Mr. Benjamin is Columbia’s mayor; contact him at skbenjamin@columbiasc.net.

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