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Learning Matters: Checks and balances are imperative for true civil discourse

I received an email last week from our representative in Congress, asking for my top priority among 11 issues: Supreme Court, healthcare, environment, immigration, gun reform, national security, civil rights, the economy, our system of checks and balances, and education.

Not inclined to pick favorites of any sort, I nearly skipped replying, though I appreciated the straightforward listing of topics, without slant or spin.

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Education, of course, is always high on my list of priorities, and it’s certainly in need of funding, but I don’t always see it as the top target for a federal fix.

“Our system of checks and balances,” however, jumped out at me, both for its central meaning — the systems developed by the framers of the Constitution to ensure that no one branch of government would be too powerful — and for its echoes in so many areas where balance seems lacking and reason is unchecked.

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In words used by the former chair of the Federal Election Commission, Ann Ravel, to describe the related issue of campaign finance reform, I’d say our system of checks and balances is: “the gateway issue of every other issue you might care about.” (Kenneth Turan review of “Dark Money,” L.A. Times, July 27, 2018.)

So I sent in my survey response with hopes Congress will reassert its role in the system, and the important issues of the day won’t continually be batted around (or battered) by unelected regulators in departments governed by the executive branch.

But for that balance to be achieved, members of Congress, along with the rest of us, will have to do a better job of checking our reflexive reactions to events and to the words people speak or write about them.

I’m glad to say I’m not alone in desiring more balanced and civil discourse. Two recent news commentaries affirm this sentiment.

Last Saturday, I heard National Public Radio’s morning host Scott Simon report on a story about a boy supposedly robbed of a foul ball catch at a Major League Baseball game. Simon had seen the video-gone-viral account on social media, where the man who caught the ball was villainized.

Simon admitted he might have reposted the video himself before learning the real off-camera story that the man, in fact, gave that boy and others balls during the game.

“How many of us would rather be outraged than informed?” Simon mused.

L.A. Times contributing writer Meghan Daum offered another example of unchecked, out-of-balance thinking in a column about a recent tweeting war among “progressive types.” (“Gagged by the social media mobs,” LA Times, July 29, 2018.)

Prompted by a filmmaker’s “relatively innocuous comment” to fellow liberals “to consider following” a conservative journalist who “doesn’t bend the truth,” the online exchange that followed exemplified for Daum the dangers of mob mentality in a social media-driven world.

“Reason itself could be stigmatized out of existence,” she wrote.

I had my own little but unsettling experience with the drama of social media recently, following a post shared by our daughter, who’d received it from a friend.

The post was an impassioned response to the tragic death of a young woman, and I sympathized with the writer’s anguish and frustration with the realities of racial bias.

But I was bothered by what I knew from personal experience were inaccuracies in some of his assertions, so I posted a “yes-but” response, only to delete it moments later for fear it would do more harm than good.

Facebook and Twitter didn’t feel conducive to productive dialogue.

I received another opinion survey in the mail, this one from a political party-affiliated source. Unlike the unweighted issues in the email survey, this one came to incite battle, with an “us versus them” approach.

“How much of a priority should it be to fight….to stop them?” With assumptions about character and overly broad generalizations, this survey’s stated purpose was to prioritize victory for the party, not a healthy system of government.

I do not plan to return that survey.

I know Congress can’t fix everything, but I’m counting on our representative to help keep us balanced and checked. And I’m hoping the rest of us will do our part.

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