We need to be able to debate respectfully

We’ve been critical of Gov. Phil Scott’s performance during this legislative session, but he was magnificent last week as he explained why he signed three gun bills into law.

First, he explained why a foiled school shooting in Fair Haven shocked him and forced him to rethink his conviction that Vermont was immune to that type of violence.

Then he explained the common-sense laws he was signing, and assured gun owners: “What it does not do is take away your guns, period.”

Beyond that, Scott eloquently described the political paranoia that has seized this country, even as gun advocates hissed and booed and shouted “Traitor” at him, in an atmosphere that downright frightened many of the people who attended the bill-signing ceremony on the Statehouse steps.
Here’s how the governor concluded his 25-minute speech:

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Today in America, too many of our fellow citizens — on both sides of every issue, not just on guns — have given up on listening, deciding to no longer consider other opinions, viewpoints or perspectives.

Our national dialogue has been reduced to angry, hateful social media posts that you can either “like” or not, with no room for conversation or respectful disagreement, and where facts and details no longer seem to matter.

We would be naïve to believe that the way we talk to each other, the way we treat each other, and the rise of violence are exclusive to one another.

Do we honestly think that the erosion of civility and respect for others is in some way unrelated to the type of violence and disregard for human lives we’re seeing?

As governor, as a Vermonter, as an American and as a dad, I am unwilling to accept any of this.

We must do better.

The idea that consensus and compromise is somehow unacceptable; that one side is always totally right or all wrong; that we can’t debate the issues and find common ground or agree to disagree, respectfully; and that the growing divide is a dark place, where the embers of hate and bigotry and blame can grow.

These things are hurting our nation.

This is not a new trend and it’s not related to any one issue or one party. Yet, in my opinion, we’ve reached an unacceptable and potentially dangerous point where our debates and activism have turned intensely and unduly personal. Sometimes, downright hateful.

We can’t forget our children are watching how we engage with one another. It begs the questions: What are they seeing? What kind of role models are we?

Online insults, slurs and angry exchanges between people who’ve never met are far too common. Many say things online they’d never say face to face.

On cable news channels, so-called “experts” yell at each other, totally unwilling to acknowledge the viewpoint of others, much less learn from it.

We, as adults, are failing to teach our children how to handle important, often complex, conversations. Even how to treat people with whom you disagree, understanding all points of view and treating others the way you want to be treated.

I know I am not alone. I know there are thousands of Vermonters who feel the way I do — who know we need to rise above it, treat each other better, even when we disagree.

If we can reduce the polarization we’re seeing across the country, we can diminish some of the anger at the root of these larger challenges. And this must be part of our ongoing pursuit to reduce violence and make our communities safer.

Now, I recognize how hard it is for some to understand my change of heart on our gun laws, let alone come to the same conclusions I’ve reached. And that many who voted for me are disappointed and angry. I understand I may lose support over the decision to sign these bills today.

Those are consequences I’m prepared to live with.

But, if we had not even tried to reduce the possibility of a tragedy here in Vermont, like Parkland or Virginia Tech, Aurora, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Dallas, or Charleston. If we didn’t try to reduce suicide and the pain felt by the family left behind; or if we didn’t try to prevent another death from domestic violence and another child growing up without a mother — that would be hard to live with.

That’s why today we choose action, over inaction. Doing something, over doing nothing. Knowing that there will always be more work to do, today we chose to try.

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