Have you ever experienced gawkers’ delay? Gawkers’ delay occurs when an accident in the southbound lane of I-95 slows traffic in the northbound lane, just because people want to see the accident. Accidents are horrible, sometimes very sad and frightening, yet many people cannot look away and cannot just move on. And the result is further paralysis.

Mainers and other Americans have all experienced the negative effects of attack ads, name-calling, falsehood and vitriol that flood the airwaves and print media. The lack of civil discourse in our public debates and campaigns is sometimes difficult to avoid. As a society, we say that we do not like negative campaign tactics but, like the drivers in the northbound lane who would likely say that they hate accidents, we cannot help but be drawn in. In other words, negative campaigning works.

Statistics show that Americans cannot avoid the wreckage of negative attack ads. Simply put, if attack ads and untruths did not work, politicians would not use them.

There have been a few examples in Maine history of negativity backfiring. Notably, in 1996, the Maine Republican primary for Senate was a three-way race between Susan Collins (a long-shot), John Hathaway and Robert Monks. Amid allegations of child abuse and press manipulation, Monks and Hathaway excoriated one another in the media. Collins took the high ground. In the end, Collins was nominated and went on win the Senate seat.

Negative ads and uncivil talk do not only impact races for public office. Important social issues up for referendum can stir negative sentiment and discord in the public sphere.

Question 4 on the 2016 ballot seeks to increase the minimum wage in Maine. The question posed is:

” Do you want to raise the minimum hourly wage of $7.50 to $9 in 2017, with annual $1 increases up to $12 in 2020, and annual cost-of-living increases thereafter; and do you want to raise the direct wage for service workers who receive tips from half the minimum wage to $5 in 2017, with annual $1 increases until it reaches the adjusted minimum wage?”

On Sept. 11, 2016, the vestry and congregation of Trinity Episcopal Church met to discuss the referendum question with a mind toward taking a public stance on the issue. In our respectful dialogue, we found a great deal of common ground.

We took the view that this issue cannot be decided by comparing people, or pitting citizens against one another. We agreed that all people are worthy of a good standard of living, and that no one who works should live in poverty. And most importantly, we affirmed that the minimum wage is an important moral issue that demands the application of our values of human decency.

The people at Trinity did not fully agree on every element of Question 4, and thus could not unanimously endorse passage without qualification. But this did not mean that our discussion had no outcome. Indeed, what happened was quite wonderful, and we offer the following suggestions:

Based on our experience of civil discourse and fruitful dialogue, Trinity Episcopal Church recommends that all voters treat Question 4 with the greatest moral sensitivity and ethical deliberation. We ask all voters to think carefully about this bill, and to listen attentively to all voices in the debate. We ask that voters approach the question in a spirit of economic justice and human decency. We ask that all discussions about this bill be conducted in a caring and thoughtful manner at the dinner table, in the classroom, in the workplace and in your place of worship. Listen to both sides of this and all of the important ballot questions, and vote your conscience.

A civil and just society begins with each of us. At Trinity Episcopal Church, we pray for a just and ethical outcome on Nov. 8.

The Rev. Dr. William M. Barter is rector of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Lewiston.


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