Our societal dialogue has strayed far from civilized conduct . . . 

Vienna, Austria, 1960s. The country had recently emerged from the “Wiederaufbau” (reconstruction) of the 1950s, a time marked by efforts to regain stability and normalcy. Yet, the faces and psyches of the people still bore the indelible marks of horror, trauma and loss from the war that ravaged societies until 1945 and beyond.

As a curious teenager living close to Vienna, I often asked people who had witnessed the war, “How did this all come about,” “Why were you drawn into this?” The reluctance to discuss these questions was palpable. Many were ashamed, some sought to forget, while a few clung to their shattered dreams. These unanswered inquiries ignited my interest in understanding how a handful of populist figures, with their incendiary speeches, could incite fanaticism and plunge the world into chaos.

Later, my wife and I seized an opportunity to immigrate to the United Sates. We became proud citizens, raising two patriotic children and striving, like millions before us, to embody the American Dream.

However, in recent years, I have noticed a disturbing pattern in public discourse here in the United States, which reminded me of what I had learned in my quest to understand the devastating central European history of the 1930s. It starts with polarizing demands to pick sides, escalates to insults, and culminates in calls for violence and suppression. This may sound eerily familiar.

Identifying the initial catalyst for our society’s slide into division and violent rhetoric is challenging. Is it elected officials, the media, or social media platforms? The list is extensive and complex. Yet, clearly, our societal dialogue has strayed far from the realms of civilized conduct, potentially leading us toward a collective trauma.

Fortunately, there is hope for reversing this trend, and it begins with individual action. A movement comprising political leaders, media experts and organizations is emerging, offering insight on reclaiming constructive and civilized discourse. Avoiding the repetition of catastrophic history is imperative!

As a lifelong “student” of history, I am convinced that we can escape these recurring pitfalls through clarity and education. As this year’s president of Greater Naples Leadership (GNL), I am committed to fostering positive change through learning. Aligning with this mission, GNL, together with partners in the community, is hosting a free public forum on Civility in Collier County on February 7. For more information and to view our distinguished faculty, please visit gnlwebsite.org/reduce-the-rancor/

Fort Myers News-Press January 18, 2024 – Dr. Gunther Winkler (article online)

Gunther Winkler, PhD, is a former biotechnology executive and is president of Greater Naples Leadership 2023-2024.