Editorial: Say what you will, but let’s keep it civil

It’s been a rough couple weeks for civil discourse on and around the North Fork. 

On Tuesday, the vice president of the Riverhead Central School District Board of Education, Laurie Downs, resigned in the wake of incendiary comments she made about previously unreported incidents of Riverhead students “getting jumped and getting robbed” while walking home from school. Obviously, if proven true, that is a serious concern — and a police report of an armed assault of a 16-year-old student later that same day served to highlight the very real problem of violent crime in and around Riverhead.

But what made Ms. Downs’ comments so offensive was her not-so-subtle insinuation that these crimes, alleged or otherwise, were being committed by Latino gang members, and her further assertion that if this trend is not reversed, Riverhead will be at risk of “becoming another Brentwood.”

That prompted an immediate response from area politicians and members of the Brentwood community, rightly condemning those statements as doing nothing more than reinforcing negative stereotypes and promoting discrimination. 

It is hard to argue with that assessment, and Ms. Downs was right to quickly and forthrightly apologize for what she herself later described as her “derogatory and harmful” statements. “Violence has no color or community,” she said. After serving the children of Riverhead since 2016, it is regrettable that Ms. Downs’ tenure ended this way, but her willingness to own up to her mistake is laudable — and all too rare. 

This unfortunate incident follows another disturbing development involving Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, who has been accused by former town assistant attorney Damon Hagan of verbal abuse and making violent threats towards him in the workplace. Mr. Russell has denied any wrongdoing and the town has hired an outside investigator to probe the allegations. But in many ways the damage has already been done. 

All of this could have — and should have — been avoided, simply by adhering to the basic tenets of what, once upon a time, was known as civil discourse. 

The National Council for the Social Studies defines civil discourse as “a conversation in which there is a mutual airing of views. It is not a contest, and is rather intended to promote mutual understanding.” What a concept!

All of us, whether residents, visitors or public officials, have the right to express our opinions. The freedom to do so, without fear of ridicule or reprisal, is essential to our democracy. But that foundational right comes with an equally essential responsibility: respect for one another. 

There is no shortage of immense challenges facing our society today, whether local, national, global or all of the above. But we have little hope of resolving, or even properly understanding, these issues if we remain unwilling to discuss them openly, fairly, and above all, with respect and civility.