Tom Purcell: Hope ‘springs’ eternal for civil discourse |
Tom Purcell, Columnist

Tom Purcell: Hope ‘springs’ eternal for civil discourse

Tom Purcell
Cherry trees line Highland Drive in the Kenwood neighborhood of Bethesda, Md. The area provides an alternative to the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., for viewing cherry blossoms. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

Spring has finally arrived in all its glory.

In Pittsburgh, the weather has warmed, the trees are blossoming and the birds are singing cheerfully.

Sure, we Pittsburghers get plenty of rain this time of year, but as English poet Thomas Tusser reminds us, “Sweet April showers do spring May flowers.” (The Pittsburgh version of Tusser’s memorable line is just as uplifting: “April showers bring May showers.”)

With winter behind us, new life erupting daily outdoors fills us with wonder, hope and ambition. What great, positive things for our lives and communities might we accomplish?

As a proud resident of “flyover country” — what some in larger cities, such as Washington, D.C., mockingly call heartland America — I hope and pray that spring’s power and beauty brings much-needed humility to our political leaders and media celebrities.

Because our political discourse must take a new course.

Our political discourse is a mess, in part because too many leaders are more interested in lathering up their bases than in addressing the many challenges we all face.

It’s a mess because too many cable-news talking heads gin up dubious narratives to swell viewership and line their pockets — a problem getting worse as traditional newspapers lose readership and revenue, prompting layoffs of hard-nosed, objective reporters who keep political leaders, and political narratives, in check.

That’s the fault of increasing social-media polarization. Too many in our representative republic surround themselves only with like-minded “friends” and demonize any ideas that conflict with their own.

Across the country, emotional thinking is overcoming critical thinking — a feelings-based approach that’s being institutionalized on college campuses, according to a fascinating article in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

“In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like,” write the authors.

This is a worrisome turn of events. As the authors point out, universities are supposed to teach students how to think, not what to think.

“The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates,” they write. “Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them.”

In any event, too many of us are lost in the narrowness of our own limited points of view. That’s not good for political discourse, or for solving problems. And, therefore, that’s not good for our country’s future.

I can’t think of a better time than right now to regain our senses.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is under way in D.C. Cherry trees given to America by the Japanese in 1912 are in full bloom. They bring an infectious calm to an otherwise raucous town.

I hope and pray that our politicians and media celebs in D.C. take long walks along the Tidal Basin to draw inspiration from those cherry trees in magnificent bloom.

I hope and pray that we all shut off our social media and cable news and take a mind-clearing walk in a park.

Then, renewed by spring’s beauty and power, we’ll be able to resume much calmer, more civil discourse — which is essential to accomplishing great, positive things for our lives and communities!

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at

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