A view from Glen Hill: Civility takes a beating

One of my teaching colleagues who lives in Branford said to me recently, “My wife had an interesting experience at our daughter’s championship game after our team had won over Wilton by only one goal: She complimented the mother of a Wilton player on the excellent performance of the Wilton team, to which the Wilton mother responded, ‘Yes, it’s too bad the better team didn’t win.’” I replied with apologies and the statement that that’s atypical behavior for Wiltonians.

Back when I was on sports teams as a high schooler and we lost games, if I had said something like that and my coach had found out about it, he would have suspended me for at least one game and might even have kicked me off the team. And I don’t know that my punishment would have been any lighter if one of my parents had set such a bad example by saying it themselves!

This brings me to the controversy concerning lighting at the Middlebrook playing fields that has filled this newspaper with both eye-opening articles and entire editorial pages devoted to letters to the editor on the subject. I’m not about to express an opinion on this sensitive subject, nor do I think I have any light to shed on it from a substantive standpoint. What I offer here instead is a short observation on civility in public discourse.

When we lived in New York City a quarter-century ago (and seemingly a world away …), in-your-face public discourse was the order of the day. It assured lots of heat and bitter feelings (that sometimes carried over to other, otherwise unrelated, issues to pollute them as well), but it was an accepted part of the culture. Then we moved here to Wilton and, to our delight, found a generally very different approach to public discourse.

Thus, even when in June 1996 our high school field house was filled to the brim with over 2,300 residents for a town meeting on the annual town budget after the first budget had been rejected by voters, the public questioning and commentary was characterized by a courtesy and quality of discourse that left us pleasantly not just surprised but amazed. Why, people on different sides of the issue were not only cogent and thoughtful in their remarks but, wonder of wonders, even seemed to be listening to each other!

Now, part of this remarkable civic ambiance was undoubtedly attributable to having Ellen Wells as the moderator of that 1996 town meeting. After his terms as first selectman ended, Bob Russell has carried on Ellen’s tradition with superb performance as moderator of our town meetings. In his wry and good-natured way, everyone can see that Bob will brook no nonsense and will counsel a speaker, if necessary, “Now, let’s try to stay on topic …” But more even than that, it has seemed that civil discourse is in our town’s DNA — a given about the Wilton way of conducting public business. And, in fact, the public commentary at our town meeting two weeks ago on the Keiser property’s conservation easement earned high marks for civility in every respect.

I must now, however, contrast that with what I’ve been reading in this newspaper concerning meetings on the playing fields lighting issue where it seems that our Wilton DNA has taken a hard hit — which hopefully is not a reflection of any permanent mutation in it. The strong feelings on both sides are fueled at least in part by the uncertainties surrounding what the actual lighting experience will be.

I don’t mean to suggest that civil public discourse should mute such substantive differences. In fact, careful articulation of those differences, offered and listened to respectfully, can actually facilitate the process of coming to a win-win solution where that is possible and, even if that is not possible, can help at least to avoid festering wounds that can rear their ugly heads in other, unrelated contexts for years to come.

Do I have a win-win lighting solution to offer here? I certainly do not. But I do know that adherence to the time-tested Wilton way of civility in public discourse is much more likely to lead to that result, and I also know that it is much less likely to leave behind those festering wounds. So, my fellow Wiltonians, may we make it not the “us v. them” but rather the “we” that has characterized our successful life in community, serving us so well for so long!

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.