Following adjournment of the 2017 Georgia General Assembly session, I have taken the last month or so to gather my thoughts and really think about our 40 days and 80 nights under the Gold Dome. What we accomplished; what we didn’t; the support I received from citizens; the numerous concerns I heard; the productive conversations in which I took part and the unproductive ones. Upon reflection, I began to think about how much political discourse in our nation has changed in recent years. In doing so, I came to the realization of how much we don’t accomplish because of this very problem.
Politics, once taken one battle at a time, has now become an all out war. And no one likes war. When did we stop talking and start yelling? At what point did we stop hearing anyone, other than those who agree with us? Or rather, when did we decide only one way or no way is the best way? Why do we think anger is the only way to achieve results? In today’s political culture, you apparently don’t catch more flies with sugar. Vinegar and unreason seem to win the day. Or does it? Does anyone really win if we can’t even sit and have a civil discussion? We spend so much time attacking people that little to no time is left to address issues and develop viable solutions.
As some of you know, I spent most of my 20s serving in ministry. Jesus is the center of all that I am — a husband, father, an employee, a co-worker — and yes, even a politician. When I say Jesus is the center of my life as a politician, I am not only referring to my political philosophy being influenced by Jesus’ teaching but that Jesus has commanded how I am to conduct myself in political discourse.
When I announced my candidacy, I stated that Jesus isn’t just concerned with the issues we take up, but the way we conduct ourselves through the process. I still believe that and I still strive to honor him and glorify him by my conduct in the General Assembly. One way that I personally believe he speaks overtly in regards to this is in James 1:19-20 which very simply says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Quick to hear, slow to speak
Ever been in a conversation where the other person doesn’t hear you because they are too busy thinking about what they are about to say? I know we have all been guilty of this a time or two, but, let’s think about this for a moment in political terms. I don’t “hear” you because “I” want to speak. Which is the equivalent of saying; your thoughts or opinions don’t matter. Only mine do.
Simply because we may not see eye-to-eye on every issue, does not give me the right to dismiss your thoughts, hurts or fears quickly. Every person is blessed with different life experiences, and since it is impossible for us to all experience the same things, we should, at the very least, be open to communicating and discussing those differences and what we have personally experienced.
If I conducted myself in this manner and dismissed all who did not agree with me, how could I ever be of service as an elected official? In fact, how could I be of service anywhere in my life — as a husband, father, friend, employee — if this was my attitude? Hearing is learning. And I think it’s safe to say, there is always something to learn, regardless of the viewpoint.
I find it so interesting to learn why and how individuals choose their stance on certain issues. I look forward to “hearing” from those whom I may not be in full agreement because it is during these times, I have the opportunity learn more. Perhaps I have overlooked a point or made a quick or uneducated decision. Maybe they have information or an idea that has been ignored. Perhaps we agree on more than we originally thought, or maybe, just maybe, they will make me see things differently and ultimately change my mind. You see — these are the conversations I relish because these are the conversations that teach me. It is unfortunate that these conversations rarely occur in today’s political climate.
Despite party lines, quick judgments or preconceived notions as to what “I must believe” versus what “they may believe,” two things often result from civil discourse. First, we usually find out that we share more common ground than initially thought. Second, we can always agree that having a conversation is a step in the right direction for the betterment of our community. Sadly, we have created a political culture where an instant attack is the weapon of choice, allowing shock and awe to reign supreme over the discussion, fact driven statistics and thoughtful debate.
Slow to anger
A recent study shows 70 percent of Americans only read headlines. And rare are those headlines “happy” in nature. As we all know, headlines never tell the whole story, and neither does social media. They show pieces of an opinionated, one-sided story. But, in a world that is driven by 140 characters or less, how can we make a point to see through the negative headlines, overcome our initial anger and get to a place where we do the research needed to form our own opinion before resorting to hateful rhetoric?
While headlines and social media can be helpful, they can also be destructive. Today, for example, instead of making an effort to attend the local board meeting, engaged in discussion, we sit at home, completely disconnected and choose to draw conclusions from what we are told. Where we were once required to go to the meeting for information, we now trust hearsay, postings and headlines. And if I don’t like what I am “being told,” then I quickly jump on the bandwagon of anger and malice. In essence, by choosing not to attend that meeting, I just gave away my power, unable to make my own thoughtful decisions.
Righteousness of God
How can we expect productive, positive results when we start from a negative, dark place? I’ll put it this way, using myself as an example. As your representative, I am more likely to listen to you if approached from a reasonable state of mind, more so, than if someone starts yelling obscenities my way, which has happened. Perhaps I am naïve, but growing up, I don’t recall elected officials hurling personal insults toward one another from every direction. I don’t remember my parents being worried about the type of behavior displayed during a presidential debate. And when our candidate lost, we didn’t bring destruction, to make a point that the new administration would be destructive. I also don’t ever remember being hesitant to attend a town hall meeting because of possible violence. Why attend the town hall when you can’t even hear the discussion over the screaming? This type of behavior is anything but productive, and we will never be able to do what is right for our republic if we can’t even sit and have a civil conversation.
While it is easy to place blame on one set of people — a political party, elected officials or those of differing opinions for the problems which face our state and nation — the truth is, by standing aside and not playing an active role, we too, are at fault. So here is the challenge. I would greatly appreciate your help in this effort. I would like to host a town hall meeting, meet and greet or roundtable, where we can have, open, civil discussion. A place where differing opinions and ideas will be conveyed without violent outbursts, protests or insults. Ironically, I guess I would like to create a political “safe space” for those who don’t agree. A place for those able to recognize the importance of peace talks and negotiations before diving directly into war. While I usually find the idea of “safe spaces,” ridiculous, even I can see the use of them in this situation. See? We already have a compromise.
I welcome and encourage those of you who believe your opinions differ from mine, to take the time, sit down for a conversation and challenge my beliefs. Hopefully, you will allow me the same courtesy. I want to hear you, truly listen and learn from you. And who knows? Maybe through the simple act of civility, while following the golden rule that is so lost in the political world today, it will finally be possible for us to find actual solutions for a better tomorrow.
Representative Heath Clark represents the citizens of District 147, which includes portions of Houston County. He was elected into the House of Representatives in 2014, and currently serves on the Insurance, Defense & Veterans Affairs, Public Safety & Homeland Security, and Science & Technology committees.