Many are bemoaning the lack of civility these days. I’ve done so myself.
But merely wishing for civil discourse won’t make it a reality. We have to find a way to get there, and the road is a lot more challenging than we might like to admit.
It involves far more than simply addressing one another politely through clenched teeth and refraining from raising our voices, calling names, etc. That’s a starting point, to be sure, but the moment we take offense at someone on the “other side,” it all tends to go out the window — unless we actually care about the person on the other side as much as we care about being right.
That’s where we have to start: with caring.
There’s a saying that “it’s better to be kind than to be right,” but why should we have to choose? Kindness is right, and kindness demands that we not only listen to the other side, but that we actually care about what we’re hearing.
To use an example from here in Cambria, kindness demands that we care about the impact of new housing on the environment. That we care about people who’ve spent money on property but haven’t been allowed to build here. That we care about infrastructure. That we care about fiscal responsibility. That we care about conservation. If we care about all those things (not just one or two), we can work toward finding common ground where all concerns are addressed.
Not perfectly, but, we can hope, openly and fairly.
There are plenty of other examples that could be cited nationally.
My way or the highway
If we only care about our own agendas, nothing will get done. Compromise means each side gets something it wants, but also has to give up something. That’s why it’s become a dirty word: because, increasingly, each side insists it’s “my way or the highway,” which leads to gridlock, stalemates and, yes, a lack of civility.
The seeds of conflict are sown, not by being right, but by insisting that our priorities are the only priorities; that our way is the only right way — and if someone else has an alternative that might work just as well or (gasp!) better, it should be ignored on the grounds that it came from the “other side.” After all, it might be a trick, a trap or a Trojan horse. We’re not likely to care too much about people we think are trying to trick us.
So, we resort to prejudice, ostensibly to protect ourselves. In an atmosphere infused with such prejudice, is it any wonder that racial and ethnic tensions have risen again; that the “battle of the sexes” is being waged with renewed vigor; that religious ideals and civil rights are clashing, rather than reaffirming each other, as, by rights, they should?
It’s happening nationally. It’s happening locally. And it’s ugly.
The trust deficit
True civility relies on at least a modicum of trust, something that’s in increasingly short supply these days. A study published in 2014 found that “Americans became significantly less trusting of each other and less confident in large institutions, such as the news media, business, religious organizations, the medical establishment, Congress, and the presidency” between 1972 and 2012.
It’s a trend that seems to be continuing.
We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.
We demand that others earn our trust, then refuse to even give them the chance to do so, for fear that they’ll stab us in the back if we do. Talk about a no-win situation. It’s no wonder they walk away frustrated, convinced they can never do enough to meet our demands for even initiating a dialogue, much less reaching an agreement. If they try, they’ll be accused of spreading fake news, practicing cultural appropriation, undermining the will of the people, disrespecting our veterans, censoring free speech or any number of other offenses, real and imagined.
Being offended is easier than starting a dialogue, because the latter is an admission that we might not have all the answers.
The freedom to be wrong
Calls for civility will fall on deaf ears so long as we refuse to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. Not just consider it. Embrace it. Too often, we view being wrong as a threat to our ego rather than an opportunity to be right. Not to just pretend we’re right or assume we’re right. To really get there.
That’s a lesson my parents taught me, but it’s not the lesson we’re learning nowadays.
I received an email the other day pointing out a few errors in a book I authored, but the writer was gracious about it: He offered the observations not as a way of saying “gotcha,” but because he wanted to let me know that “your writing inspires your readers to savor every word.” I immediately sent an email to my publisher, notifying him of the suggested changes.
That’s civility. That’s how progress is made.
Compromise isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a civilized society.
But too often, instead of making others feel safe about the possibility of being wrong, we shame them with those “gotchas” at the tiniest of perceived infractions, at the vaguest hint of hypocrisy. And, in so doing, we reinforce both their defensiveness and our own ideas that they were never to be trusted in the first place. Certain of their ulterior motives, we repeat rumors without confirming them and even attack their wives, their friends and their children.
The “other side,” we’re convinced, is not to be trusted, and any attempt at compromise will only create a slippery slope, down which we’ll slide into some trap that’s been set to ensnare those who dare to question the “accepted” way of doing things. Accepted by our side, that is. We’ve learned that denial — the more fervent the better — insulates us from the consequences of our actions, because our allies will defend the shared “truth” we’ve so carefully cultivated, even if it isn’t true at all.
We’ve convinced ourselves that defensiveness is better than questioning. We’ll protect what’s ours, by golly, come hell or high water.
What we’ve wrought
The result is a polarized society, where we’re left with two extreme and inflexible alternatives, with no room for nuance and compromise in between.
“Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes,” Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote in their book “The Big Sort” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). “Heterogenous communities restrain group excesses; homogenous communities march toward extremes.”
Moderation is what we’re leaving behind. Extremism is where we’re headed.
The pathway leads away from civility and through exclusive gatherings of like-minded individuals, online and in person, where opinions are reinforced and conclusions seldom challenged. Like prizefighters, we head to our respective corners, where wounds are dressed, pep talks delivered and encouragement given to beat the other guy to a pulp.
Is this what we really want?
The further apart we get, the longer our journey back toward moderation will be. What we need to get there is some humility, openness, at least a little trust, and a willingness to compromise. Because compromise isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a civilized society.