I blogged the other day about why I am worried about what I think is an increasing lack of civility. You can read my reasons here. Today, I want to make a few suggestions about some modest steps anyone can take to help with this problem.
Here's the genesis of this: I have strong thoughts and convictions about politics. I also profess to worship a loving God and believe that all humanity are my brothers and sisters. I noticed, several years ago, that my political feelings were leading me to be angry, sarcastic, and suspicious of people. As I thought about this, I realized I wasn't the only one. It's a pandemic, and let's be honest: it's on both the left and right.
I decided that I was going to try to become more civil and respectful. I wanted to live the old cliche and find a way to disagree without being disagreeable. So, I took several small steps. Baby steps, you might say. But I found that they were helpful and they had a cumulative effect on me.
I haven't changed my opinions or views. But I have changed the way I view others, and that has had a positive effect on me. I think I am more civil to others. But, just as importantly, I am different. I feel more temperate, more balanced. I'm more confident expressing my views because they are thoughtful conclusions that don't rely on invective, sarcasm or bombast. In other words, civility has essentially polished and refined my views--burning away the dross. So, I'm not advocating being mushy and checking your opinions at the door. To the contrary, I'm suggesting ways to engage in dialogue and debate without being destructive.
Here are the things I've found helpful. I'm not naive enough to believe that these are silver bullets or fairy dust, but they've made a big difference in my own experience.
1. Use proper titles of people with whom you disagree. President Obama--not Obama. Speaker Boehner. Justice, Senator, Governor, Representative, Secretary, Mr,. Mrs., Ms. It's amazing what a difference this makes. This week, I've been teaching my musical theatre students how emphasis on a single word can change or enhance the meaning of a song. Tiny things make huge interpretive differences. Using titles automatically helps temper discussion.
2. Use the names your ideological opponents choose for themselves. If someone opposes abortion, chances are they are deeply concerned about unborn life. I know a lot of these folks and they really are acting on that concern. Calling them "anti-choice" or "anti-woman" is just not accurate. Likewise, I know very few people who think abortion is just a wonderful thing. The pro-choice people I know are exactly that--they have concluded that personal freedom is important. They aren't murderers.
In the old days, when a gentleman's honor was impugned, he would challenge the offender to a duel. The one who was challenged often chose the weapons. It was the code.
Why not update this code? Let's disagree all we want to about important issues. But how about letting our opponents choose the terms by which they want to be known? If someone styles themself pro-life or pro-choice, then let's do the courtesy of granting them that title. Then, we can let the merits of our argument carry the day instead of trying to score cheap points by giving them names that reflect shallow stereotypes. The problem with defining our opponents is that we then judge their motives--which we really can't do. Which leads to the next item--
3. Assume good faith. I know people who want the government to raise taxes. I know people who want the government to slash taxes. Both parties are sure that their prescription will help the economy and is the morally right and reasonably sound thing to do. The tax-raisers are not socialists. The tax-cutters are not wanting to throw old people out on the street.
Let's assume that our opponents are people like us--good people who are advocating for what they really believe is best. Then, let's argue strenuously about which policies are best. However, the quality of the argument is enhanced because I am saying, "This policy is bad because abc" instead of "This person is bad because xyz." This approach is more difficult because it requires thought, study, facts, and persuasion. The other approach is incredibly lazy--not to mention corrosive.
Ironically, casting aspersions on our opponents makes it difficult to effectively point out real evil. If Bush or Obama are Hitler/Stalin/the Devil, then those words cease to mean anything and when a real Hitler comes along, our language is impotent and we are unable to combat genuine evil.
4. Connected with number 3, don't define your opponents by their most extreme allies. Are there bigots who hate gay people? Yes. Does that make everyone who has concerns about gay marriage a bigot? No. Just as not everyone who is pro-choice relishes the thought of killing babies. Are there some gay activists who want to push society into a radical gay agenda? Yes. But are there also a lot of gay people who sincerely want to be married and have no intention of destroying traditional marriage? Yes.
The fact that a wacko votes for the same person as me doesn't make me crazy. Every--and I mean EVERY--group has extreme elements in them. I would wager that everyone of us belongs to some group in which there is someone who makes us cringe a bit--someone we don't really endorse. But, in our culture wars today, we take the most extreme examples of the other side and hold them up as if they are the norm. It's sloppy and lazy and it betrays either a lack of confidence in the virtue and power of our own arguments and positions or else a mean-spiritedness that is disturbing.
Okay, I have a few more suggestions, I'll post them later.
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