SME President's Page

Hugh Miller

What happened to civility in debate?

I suspect many of you will agree, it's become increasingly difficult over the last few months to watch television, listen to the radio, or read any article that deals with politics or addresses any news subject that can potentially be formulated into a partisan issue.

Regardless of your position on any particular issue, I find it disheartening to watch or engage in any debate where emotion supersedes rational dialog and meaningful discussion. A couple of recent examples that underscore my frustrations with the news include two attorneys from opposing political parties screaming at each other during a national newscast over the potential legalities of specific legislative activities, or the on-going political mudslinging over the potential legalities of several alleged activities involving both parties and local activists in the Pacific Northwest using violence and the destruction of private property to protest political extremism. These are just two of numerous occurrences that we are bombarded by daily in which emotion appears to be the driver for conflict at the expense of anything rational, where nothing productive or positive can possibly come from these events. It often seems that many of these occurrences are staged for the purposes of entertainment through the media or to advance some alternative agenda; definitely not to find potentially viable solutions to facilitate positive change. It makes me seriously wonder what happened to civility, professionalism, and compromise in solving complex, social challenges.

Early in my professional career, I was fortunate to have a truly outstanding boss who regularly provided me with valuable insights on how to deal with people, regardless of their positions or role in a company. One of those morsels of wisdom dealt with never falling in love with a property or a project, and that professionalism meant keeping emotion out of the decision-making process, maintaining perspective on what was important. A follow-up outcome to this was to always keep an open mind, where changing a position on a subject for good reason was not a sign of weakness, poor management or indecision but rather maturity. The exception to this, of course, included anything contrary to a set of non negotiable values related to safety, ethical behavior and the law. This fit very nicely with the values I grew up with. My parents stressed the fundamental concepts of the Golden Rule, to think rationally, to never act impulsively and to try to understand the perspectives of people that have differing views from your own. The intent is to always find the win-win solution that resolves the problem and creates a reason to develop trust between opposing parties. This philosophical approach has proven to work well in a variety of situations, ranging from conflict resolution to business negotiations. The fundamental premise is that people generally respond positively when they feel they're being treated with respect in an honest and trustworthy manner. Intuitively, it definitely makes sense.

It's important to remember that civility means more than just being polite. Just as critical, civility also doesn't mean "rolling over and playing dead." To be successful in our society, one cannot simply avoid tough issues because they're unpleasant to deal with or difficult to address. In addition, nearly every issue in a diverse society has alternative sides to it with differing interests and perspectives. The concept of civility recognizes that thoughtful and competent professionals will often have differing opinions, interests or views on how to best accomplish something, and that concept represents constructive dialog based upon available facts and verifiable information, compromise and an understanding of the opposing positions in order to achieve a satisfactory outcome for all parties. This type of effort requires that the parties involved are negotiating in good faith, are motivated to find a viable solution, and have legitimate standing. Like most technical applications, factual disagreements over the interpretation of technical information and data are common. These conflicts can usually be resolved through a prescribed process. What can't be overcome, however, is the deliberate distortion of information or the absence of good faith to find a solution. These are killers to the process.

In regard to my earlier examples involving a few of the political and social challenges currently facing our society, I'm simply at a loss on how they can be resolved since the parties have competing agendas, are not tolerant of opposing views, and don't want to engage in constructive dialog. I'm afraid the only mechanism for change will be when the general public has finally had enough and will focus its frustrations at public officials through elections and other political/social means. It's a monumental issue that continues to have a fundamental impact on our country. I want to thank all of you for the opportunity to share a few of these ideas and thoughts.

Before I conclude this month's article, I'd like to briefly recognize the tremendous accomplishments of Dr. Bill Hustrulid, who passed away a few months ago. Bill was internationally renowned for his many books and publications and was an innovative researcher in mining technology and applied rock fragmentation for decades. He influenced the careers of countless young engineers while teaching at several universities in the United States and Sweden. In addition, he was one hell of an engineer, was an SME Distinguished Member and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Beyond all else, Bill was steadfastly committed to students, and was a tremendous advocate of teaching the fundamentals, the importance of ethics, and "always doing the right thing." Despite being well known for his strong convictions and opinions, Bill would often challenge students to convince him to change his position on a particular issue and subject. While I still carry the scars of those discussions, he made me a better engineer. I wrote this article with Bill in mind, and I know he'd enjoy the debate. Take care and be safe.