BERRIEN SPRINGS — When it comes to civility, the rules of engagement aren’t always black and white.

That became apparent during a public forum on positive civil discourse Wednesday that included political panelists.

The panelists included State Rep. Aaron Miller, of the 59th District; Dennis Smith, who was Miller’s Democratic opponent in last fall’s election; Dave Pagel, a former state representative from the 78th District; and Joey Andrews, who ran unsuccessfully in the 79th District race last fall.

The League of Women Voters of Berrien and Cass Counties hosted the forum at the Berrien RESA Conference Center. Audience members were asked to listen actively and to speak from their own experiences during the question-and-answer portion of the forum.

A series of moderators asked questions of the four panelists. Topics included the effect social media has had on civility and what they learned when discussing tough topics on the campaign trail.

Pagel, with more than 25 years of experience in government, said one of the more difficult topics to find middle ground with individuals on during the past few years has been President Donald Trump.

“When you think of a president, there are so many nuances of opinion we should allow for, but that is a subject that I face when I’m in front of a Republican group,” said Pagel. “After awhile I found it best to just keep my mouth shut because it’s very, very, very hard to have a civil discussion of the pros and cons about the man and the job he’s doing.”

Abortion has been a hot-button issue with many voters, as Smith learned on the campaign trail.

As a retired pastor, Smith said he found it hard to properly articulate his stance on pro-choice matters when the questions he was given were skewed.

“A lot of times when I was asked about my position, it was a loaded question to begin with,” he said. “It’s difficult because I have not yet quite figured out how to respond to those questions in a way that engages conversation.”

A social dilemma

Facebook and Twitter have often been at the center of political discourse over the past decade. Moderators asked the panelists what effect social media has had in their lives.

Miller said he sees many benefits to social media, but understands how it can be used in a negative fashion.

“This is a clear benefit as people have more access to their public servants than ever before. And that’s a good thing,” Miller said. “But I think people are more willing to say something online that they wouldn’t if the person was four feet in front of them.”

As an avid Twitter user, Andrews said he believes social media has brought people closer than ever before.

He said the main problem is social media isn’t regulated enough to keep the bullying, toxicity and spread of misinformation in check.

“If somebody reads something that speaks to their bias in an extreme way, they post it and they’re angry. If somebody comments saying this isn’t true, it starts a yelling match,” Andrews said.

Pagel admitted he isn’t the biggest expert when it comes to social media. However, he noted how gratifying it can be to see all the likes and shares on Facebook.

The trouble with social media, Pagel said, normally comes down to politics.

“Try being a moderate Republican these days,” Pagel said to a room full of laughter. “Berrien County conservatives and other groups will post or say things they never would to your face. And I just ignore it.”

When it comes to hate speech, panelists said they were surprised by how fast some movements have grown.

Andrews said he avoids engaging with hateful rhetoric because it only gives that message a platform.

“You’re not going to convince that person to stop hating,” Andrews said. “…Those people want to be engaged with because it gives them more of a voice and draws more people to them. My stance is to ignore it, block it, ban it, do everything you can to take that voice away. Once hate gets a public voice, it multiplies like crazy.”

Pagel said he’s surprised how anti-semitism and other forms of racism have re-emerged and gained strength.

“I read history a lot and I would have thought we were going to get better,” he said. “But we’ve taken a turn south here and it’s just mind-boggling.”

In his attempts to remain civil, Pagel said he tries to take in a person’s words and express his opinion in a non-combative way.

Miller said he puts himself in another person’s shoes before jumping to conclusions.

“Everybody is going to have a different opinion on different topics. And that’s OK. It’s OK to disagree,” Miller said. “The issue is can you do it in a productive way that doesn’t turn into an argument.”

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