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For a day or two last week, even the occupants of the contentious hallways of Congress were focused on the quality of public discourse -- or its erosion -- in our nation.

And all it took was one of them to get shot.

I don't say that to make light of last week's injuries after a gunman opened fire during the Republicans' team practice for an annual charity baseball game that pits the GOP against the Democrats. Several people were injured, including U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana as he played second base. He remained in critical condition Friday.

My point is, it takes something big to dislodge Americans and their political leaders from their all-out, I'm-right-so-you-must-be-wrong approach to debating the public policy issues of the day.

Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, and Mike Doyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, appeared jointly after last week's violence by a man whose views sharply disagreed with GOP policies. Barton told interviewers that even though every member has a D or an R by his name, they all share the title of United State representative.

Doyle acknowledged the shooting had led many members of Congress to reflect on the partisan divide so intense these days.

"And I think all of us are reflecting on how each one of us individually can set an example for the country, too, because when people see their leaders being uncivil toward one another, then you start to see the public being uncivil toward one another and toward their leaders," he said, appearing on the PBS Newshour. "And I think that's got to change. So maybe it starts with us, and maybe this will change some attitudes here."

Now, let's not get overly inspired here. This isn't the first time a shocking incident has provoked unity, and it tends to be temporary. Before long, emotions and behaviors will drift closer to what we've come to know as "normal."

But it surely can do no harm that these congressmen and the people of our nation paused for even a couple of days to consider the damage we risk inflicting on ourselves and our neighbors with the level of vitriol we sometimes embrace.

It is unhealthy, for example, to view a person with a different political philosophy as motivated by evil intentions or to reference them as morons over their stance on a political matter.

In "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Steven Covey advises we should seek first to understand, then to be understood." What is it doing to our attitudes, to our very souls, if we seek first to malign those with viewpoints we disagree with?

The coarsening of our public discourse and our emotional responses to people with ideas different from our own are not advancing this country and they're not making our lives better.

A few years back I was doing an interview on the future of newspapers on KUAF, our local University of Arkansas-based affiliate of National Public Radio. Asked if newspapers would eventually disappear, I acknowledged that the medium of print certainly might one day fade away. I hope it's not anytime soon, but it might happen.

I went on, however, not so much to lament a world in which printed newspapers are viewed as archaic, but saddened by the loss of a common foundation of knowledge among neighbors and fellow citizens that for a couple of hundred years newspapers have helped to establish.

When almost everyone in a community received a daily newspaper, there was a basic collection of information from which to work. It's not that everyone agreed or disagreed on every topic. But people knew President Eisenhower said this or that Leonid Brezhnev did that.

I love social media and the great potential of the Internet, but today many of us are tailoring the content we see to the point that opposing viewpoints worth considering don't even make their way into our protected digital bunkers.

How are our mayors, governors, congressmen and presidents supposed to govern 300 million people who seem to have less and less in common with each passing day. Are we becoming so individualized that it's impossible to find common ground and the common good?

This connected world we live in is still quite young. It's as though we've been handed a toy or a device we're not quite prepared to handle. My hope is we'll all eventually adjust, recognize its limitations and its side effects, and figure out how to overcome them so that we can, to the extent possible, truly be citizens of a united United States where debate is strong, but less emotional.

Commentary on 06/19/2017

Print Headline: A temporary truce

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