UNION, NJ - Jon Bramnick says that when he first saw the need for more civility in public life about 12 years ago, he remembered people laughing at him.
With the nation's divide perhaps as pronounced as it's been in recent times, the Assembly Republican Leader from state Legislative District 21 moderated an Oct. 21 forum at Union County College about "Hate Speech & Division" in America.
Panelists included state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and two former attorneys general - Christopher Porrino and Jeffrey Chiesa. Also on the panel were Walter Fields, a former NAACP political director, and Meryl Chertoff, the executive director, state and local government program,Georgetown University Law School.
Bramnick succinctly sized up the problem in a phone conversation,
"When you speak to people (these days), people are very divided," he said.
The discussion before about 150 people, most of whom were students, identified a number of reasons why this was true - apart from a traditional divide over national politics.
One is the rise in cable television, which unlike traditional TV programs, tends to be opinion-based as opposed to fact-based. With specific cable TV stations appealing only to conservatives or liberals, some viewers only get their news from one ideological viewpoint. Panelist Chertoff noted that the impact of cable TV is heightened by its 24-hour a day news cycle.
And then, there's the Internet, which allows unfiltered comment on just about anything, much of which is anonymous. Panelists said in years past, many of those dealing in "hate speech" were relegated almost literally to their own circle of associates. But now, technology gives these people a very public platform. Or as one panelist put it, the Internet has become society's "dark corner" of yesteryear.
Bramnick said more education about civility in schools is one way to attack the problem. Individuals have a role to play too.
In a take-off of the line about,"If you see something, say something," Bramnick said the panel saw a need for people to condemn so-called hate speech when and if they hear it.
If the nation's political division continues unabated, some panelists said they feared that one or two sparks can "incite civil unrest."
The event took place with Bramnick in a reelection fight with two Democrats and two conservative independents. But he dismissed any suggestion of political considerations.
"Just stop, everything is not political," he said.