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    • Maya Stiles Parsons Spier

      Columnist, Editor-in-Chief
    • January 13, 2013 in Columnists

    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.

    • Maya, you are way more civil than I am. I have very few friends anymore who don't agree with me on almost everything. As I age I have become tired of fighting the good fight. No one is going to change their position and I find it so frustrating that I have given up. I know with some friends they are just not interested in discussing things that are important to me so we keep it on surface stuff. Others we talk and talk and talk about deep level things. But being as passionate as I am I find it way too frustrating to engage with someone who doesn't believe in gay marriage, equal rights for women and abortion rights. Some things I just can't even listen to.

      • Madge, love, I am 57 years old and trust me, I DO get that. And when I think of the paltriness of heart it requires to be against things that are simple, human decency, it makes me nuts. However, I also believe that everything that hurts or challenges us comes with at least one gift and often far more. I was in a juvenile institution for 7 months when I was 16 years old–that's about 3 and 1/2 years in grownup time. During that time, if I did not measure my words very, very carefully with grownups and often even with other kids, the consequences could be virtually unpayable. So I am utterly controlled about 99.9% (that .1% WAS notable) of the time. Over time, it has been made clear to me the amazing *power* of civility. The civil nearly always win and also tend to look far, far better. Mind you, I am a crafter of words, so I can also flay the skin off of someone and remain civil, but I also have learned that a bent to educate is also powerful because if I can get them to see, then progress is made. I am the most idealistic cynic I've met in a while, I suppose. Hugs! 🙂

      • Hellion

      • January 13, 2013 at 7:11 pm
      • Reply

      You are way more civil than I am. If I find out my friends are Republican AFTER we've become friends, I have to really think I hard if I want to keep the friendship. 🙂 “Passionate” is putting it lightly.

        • Maya North

        • January 14, 2013 at 12:38 am
        • Reply

        There was one woman I just evaporated on when she announced “I just LOVE George Bush!” And a few old school chums I'd found on FB–nearly vanished on them, too. And I have been known to ignore some of their more heinous postings. It would not do for me to unleash about them–and it would not change anything. I do confess I sometimes want to say “Are you freaking NUTS???” But I'm quite sure they think so of me 😉

      • Kelvin Wade

      • January 14, 2013 at 11:54 am
      • Reply

      I've found that for many people it's hard for them to maintain friends that have different politics. I just had two friends who stopped speaking over the gun issue. They've been friends since 1978. That's ridiculous in my opinion. I have friends who are Democrats, Republicans and Independents. I have friends who are very religious and friends that are atheists. Friends that are white, black, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander.

      As far as convincing people of my views, I don't believe that's going to happen. I've been a columnist for over 20 years. People believe what they want and facts do not matter. I've learned that people form their opinions and then seek facts to support their already arrived upon conclusions, not the other way around.

      But what i love about these people who have different politics than I do is our common humanity. They have the same hopes for their kids. We might like the same baseball team or the same movie. Or food. There are many other things besides who is in the White House or what measure just passed for us to see common ground on. But yes, it gets frustrating at times. I have a friend who is a City Council person who I think is a stand up person. She's smart, efficient and just a solid person. And her fawning over George W. Bush made me wanna puke. LOL But civility is a must. i don't mind a passionate argument but when it becomes personal, it's over.

      Thank you for this column, Maya. Glad to see someone else out there believes we can still be friends with people we disagree with.

        • Maya North

        • January 16, 2013 at 12:10 am
        • Reply

        Oh, Kelvin, it gets so difficult and I meant it when I said that sometimes I must either cool myself down or walk away. Perhaps it's part of that 'just keep walking persistence' or that I am the most idealistic cynic I know, but I never truly lost hope that I can turn people around. My job title perhaps should be 'Fool's Errand Runner'… 😉

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