Shelter Island Reporter editorial: Public debate 101

Consoling shocked and distressed White House staff members — especially the young ones — after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, President Barack Obama told them, “It’s not the end of the world — until it’s the end of the world.” Four years later, Mr. Trump was soundly defeated, by both the popular vote and in the electoral college.

Another timely example of political wisdom has been used by President Joe Biden, who has said that in a political debate, never question your opponent’s motives, but argue the facts and counter assertions.

Both pieces of advice must be used in the ongoing debate — which has turned into mud wrestling — about affordable housing that has rocked Town Hall in recent weeks.

This newspaper’s editorial policy is firmly in favor of making some housing affordable, and has outlined methods to achieve that goal. We’ve supported those who are working to make the idea happen, and will continue to do so, applauding their ideas and efforts.

But what’s been happening by advocates of a good idea has discredited them with threats of physical violence by Councilman Jim Colligan — who has, to his credit, apologized — and an overbearing attitude by Supervisor Gerry Siller. The other side is no better, floating conspiracy theories, and using arrogant and condescending dismissals of arguments and disrupting meetings as a tactic to bait opponents.

In some ways what’s going on is a product of the times we live in. A look at recent American history can be blinding with examples of misguided and hypocritical leaders, many who were once skeptics but crossed lines into the camp of the cynics. And this is the place to give three cheers to the skeptics, who will hold fire and weigh a situation, never acting on either naiveté or the certainty that most human situations will end in tears.

Another reason for the triumph of the cynics is an aging mentality in the society, and it’s not just a population growing older in years. Where once Americans of any age were viewed — by themselves and other nationalities — as the youthful optimists at the table, now it seems everywhere you look you find wised-up sourpusses, also of all ages, scowling in the corners.

Add the bitter, carpet-bombing rhetoric that flows through websites, and political discourse and cynicism never lacks fuel to keep powering on.

It’s time to stop publicly maligning people you disagree with. Make a case. Marshal support behind you. Don’t be baited into verbalizing your worst instincts. Start over. If you lose, live to fight another day. It’s not the end of the world.