My commentary on Terri Schiavo has drawn considerable e-mail response. The vast majority of writers express appreciation and agreement. Some tell of tortured personal experiences similar in nature. A few are rather sharply worded attacks, but only one is really nasty.
This feedback tells me a couple of things. First, people on all sides of the issue identified personally with Ms. Schiavo’s ordeal, and in doing so, they read their own lives into the dilemma; thus, the rush to prepare living wills and advance directives. Second, people are deeply, emotionally involved in this situation. It is not an abstraction, it is up-close-and-personal.
With her passing, the next phase of the public debate lies before us. This is the debate over public policy regarding end-of-life issues and the seating of judges. This raises a question that continues to perplex me, especially because many, many writers tell me they feel voiceless and ignored. They also express frustration that the extremes have been in the media spotlight and have framed the issues.
The question is this: How can we engage in a respectful dialogue about issues that are important to the whole society in a way that encourages participation? And most importantly, how can we do this so it leads to constructive ends?
It will require the media, political and religious leaders to behave differently. Frankly, I doubt this will happen. I’m not going to bash the media or the politicians in this post. But it’s clear to me that harsh rhetoric only invites harsh response. It’s an escalating war of words. I don’t see how this helps us deal with the tough questions we must resolve.
However, for the survival of a diverse and democratic state, we must change the quality of our conversation or we will lose those values that we have all enjoyed as the “great democratic experiment.” I don’t think it’s rhetorical flourish to say, as Bill Moyers said recently, that the soul of democracy is at stake.
Beyond the important specific issues in the debate about end-of-life decisions are the questions of how we talk, listen and learn from each other; and how we learn to disagree without destroying ourselves or the social fabric. This is an urgent concern right now. It must be addressed as we enter into this next phase of this debate.
I believe we will need to call ourselves to account; politicians, clergy, journalists, and ourselves. What is at stake is more than winning a debate. What is at stake is the quality of our civic society and how inclusiveness and participatory it will be.