An argument for the furtherance of civility in modern discourse
“We need to in this country begin again to raise civil discourse to another level. I mean, we shout and scream and yell and get very little accomplished, but you can disagree very much with the next guy and still be friends and acquaintances.”
~ Leah Ward Sears
I have several dear friends with whom I agree about almost nothing – and yet, nearly everything. Two are very conservative Republicans. One is an anti-abortion Libertarian and devout evangelistic Christian. I absolutely adore all three. And I think much of what they hold so dear is utter hogwash.
That’s okay. That’s what they think of what I hold so dear. How do we make it work? Civility. That and my firmly held belief that everybody comes to their convictions from a valid starting point. It makes no difference that this is not my own starting point. Far be it from me to say that the sum total of their life experiences is of no worth.
Except that I think they are wrong.
Don’t think that we don’t discuss this. We discuss our issues on a regular basis. And don’t think that we don’t get pretty passionate about our points; oh my dears, we absolutely do. We go at it hammer and tongs, using the most persuasive language at our disposal, offering up as many examples as we can find, all in pursuit of convincing one another of the rightness of our stances.
It never works. Okay, it usually doesn’t work, but it does often enough to make it worth doing. Even if it didn’t work, we’d still try, because we are all smart, intense, reasonably eloquent individuals who would really like to change the world to fit our own dreams. This is how I have been convinced by responsible gun enthusiasts that we should not ban guns even as I have convinced them that well-designed gun control laws are a very good idea. (Note: I know that this is a hopeless cause with many, but it worked a few times, so I will keep trying.)
What we have learned, in the course of all this happy wrangling – okay, not always so happy (sometimes I want to clout them upside the head, as I am quite sure they do with me) – is that we agree on more than we disagree. Civility has allowed us to see the individual behind the rhetoric and to respect that individual over our feelings about their politics and philosophies.
We agree that we want all people to have reasonable amounts of prosperity. We want the world to have safe housing, enough to eat, and security for their children to grow up happy and ready to inherit the earth. Once we realized that on the basics, we were on the same page, it was easier to release our assumption that we had evil motives behind our stances. No, most Republicans do not want to see a population of desolate homeless children. No, most Democrats do not want to bankrupt this entire country.
This is how we behave as friends with opposing viewpoints. We also need to remember to approach people who will never be willingly counted as friends in precisely the same way. Even if we cannot manage civility for the sake of ethics, it is important to remember that civility is also a tactic. Whomever breaks civility first – loses control and begins to spew epithets and insults, who makes it personal – loses. If we both come in to the arena and they are befouling the air with their words and I remain calm, focused and in control, who comes up smelling like roses in this exchange? Precisely!
Besides which, isn’t the point of debate to make progress? It seems to me that the point of any and every argument should be to make changes and adjustments until all people can at least live with the result. This works on scales from the personal to the global. If differences are approached with a global thermonuclear scale discussion, they won’t last long, but they won’t accomplish much, either.
The heart of this is self-control. This may also mean taking a deep breath and waiting until we have calmed down. Sometimes I have been able to come back to it and address the issue in a mannerly fashion. Occasionally this has meant that I have not engaged because I could not ever trust myself to behave. Sometimes I have to recognize that I could come in with guns blazing just because I am being Madame Crankypants and that I will deliberately indulge in vicious verbiage, laying to waste all that is good in the relationship. At those moments, I tell myself to shut up and go sulk in my corner until I can be nice again. I cherish these friendships and these people – and they are, at heart, good, good people – and I loathe the very idea of ever truly hurting them.
All those years ago, teaching Hebrew to my gorgeous, adorable, brilliant young students, I had one major rule, and I held firmly to it. First I explained to them what civility was. And then I told them this: “I will expect civility from you. But I will also expect civility for you.” Children, cherishing fairness as they do, liked this very much. Our classroom was quite the civil place most times; once we become accustomed to it, it isn’t actually that difficult.
Now, if my 7 and 8 year olds could do it, do we think as adults we might give it a try?
P.S. This is dedicated to my three lovely wrong-headed conservative friends from their very own whack-job leftist.