Should Kshama Sawant apologize to colleague?

Crosscut archive image.

Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant at a Seattle City Council meeting in 2014.

We are in a dither here about whether or not City Councilmember Kshama Sawant owes an apology to her new colleague, John Okamoto. Sawant unleashed verbal attacks on Okamoto during hearings to fill Sally Clark’s vacant seat.

The Seattle Times, whose coverage of Sawant has until now been fawning, says she needs to apologize and tone it down. The Stranger's readers say she doesn’t.

Will Sawant apologize? Seems like a long shot. But, more importantly, that’s not the issue.

Some argue the real issue here is “civility,” or its absence. Politics — not to mention ordinary life — suffers from a loss of civility. Chris Vance, former member of the Legislature and King County Council (who, among other things, writes for Crosscut), made this case on KUOW’s “Week in Review” program on Friday, May 1. There are norms for civilized speech in legislative bodies argued Vance, and Sawant had failed to observe them.

Eli Sanders of the Stranger and Tonya Mosley, who writes for Al Jazeera America and other outlets, argued on “Week in Review” that Sawant had nothing to apologize for. Moreover, Sanders and Moseley applauded Sawant for not kowtowing to “Seattle nice,” and instead being willing to, as Sanders put it, to “get in the face” of other Council members.

Which will it be, civility or candor? Polite, reasonable speech or taking off the gloves and opening things up? That is the way this most recent kerfuffle surrounding Sawant has been framed.

But that misses the point.

The problem with Sawant is not a lack of civility, but a lack of thought. Her stock-in-trade are slogans, ideological catchphrases and overheated rhetoric. Dismissing Okamoto as a tool of “the establishment” and claiming he presided over a “cesspool of corruption” at the Port are relatively modest examples of her sloganeering.

The issue is Sawant’s capacity — and that of everyone else in public life — to make a good argument. A good argument can be deadly, but it kills with clear thought and careful argumentation rather than tossing around slogans or ideologically charged rhetoric calculated to stir the true believers.

John Courtney Murray, the great Jesuit public theologian of the mid-20th century, famously observed, “A good argument is a great achievement.” He was not in favor of fuzzing things up with false politeness and calling it “civility.” But neither was he saying we should fill the air with cant and invective and call that an “argument.”

A good argument is not measured by decibels, rising blood pressure or the sweet if short-lived satisfaction of giving full vent to one’s anger. It is measured by clarity of thought and carefully sequenced argument that identifies the issues at hand and engages them.

The real problem is that making a good argument is a great achievement — an achievement of which increasingly few seem capable.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.