“Iowa Nice” is a label for the general friendliness and openness to strangers that one often encounters in the people of Iowa. Iowa nice is showing when the driver in an approaching pickup truck raises a finger off the steering wheel and gives a small salute as you pass by. Iowa nice is also on display when RAGBRAI pulls into town; the outpouring of good will is matched by the outpouring of lemonade with pie on the side.

There are also some darker sides to Iowa nice. We can be passive aggressive; our wide welcoming smiles can mask prejudicial and discriminatory behavior; we can bury hard problems instead of facing up to them. We are not perfect, and we know it; but in general, we are nice.

The current election campaigns have convinced me that the whole nation could benefit from some Iowa nice. The presidential debates underscored this need. As I watched some of the debate — I could not bear to watch the whole time — I was reminded of a crude sketch used to illustrate interreligious dialogue some years ago. The cartoon-like drawing showed three very enthusiastic people with giant heads. Then I noticed some details were very wrong for an illustration of dialogue: all three heads had tiny eyes, none had ears, but all had huge mouths that were talking at the same time! Is our political environment these days like that? Everyone talking? No one listening? Are our eyes closed to oncoming disaster?

Some years ago, there was a long-running, half-hour political show called “The McLaughlin Group”. For 34 years, until 2016, John McLaughlin, the moderator, would introduce an issue, and then encourage four panelists to discuss. At about 15 minutes into the program, the cross talk made it hard to discern anything other than growing anger. From 1997 until 2020, Chris Matthews hosted “Hardball”, a politics and opinion program that often relied on the same techniques: cross talk, raised voices and provocation.

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About the same time, from 1991 to 2018, the Jerry Springer Show presented controversial social issues that mostly resulted in shouting, fights and cheers from a rabid audience. Sad.

A major goal of higher education is to help students grow in critical thinking. Some basic ingredients of critical thinking are: listening to others, considering their ideas and showing civility and respect. Some politicians do exhibit the skills necessary to debate the issues of their time with respect. “Face Off”, a radio show that aired five times a week from 1986 to 1993, featured Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts, engaging Republican Sen. Bob Dole, of Kansas, or Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, of Wyoming, in brief two-minute debates. They were always interesting, informative, clever and often funny. The recordings of the programs are still available online https://tinyurl.com/yxft5wda. Listen to a few of the mini-debates; notice how they encourage you to think critically.

Iowa nice emphasizes openness and friendliness to strangers and to opponents. It discourages demonizing and interrupting people. That is a good start as we approach Election Day and whatever follows. Archbishop Michael Jackels, of Dubuque, frequently suggests two additional indicators of sound thinking and critical decision-making. He asks, “Am I acting for the common good; focusing on we, you and ours, not on I, me and mine? Am I inspired by the readiness to serve, sacrifice, even suffer for the benefit of others?”

Archbishop Jackels attended the University of Nebraska, and some people say there is such a thing as Nebraska nice. Maybe they are right; but still, I figure that Hawkeye corn is nicer than Cornhusker corn! What do you think?

The author has been president of Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, since 2017. A 1976 graduate of the college, his previous assignments have included working in the barrios of Mexico and serving in top administrative roles with the order in Rome. His email address is tascheman@dwci.edu.