The Civility Project initiated by this paper last month is a great beginning – but it’s not enough.“Civil” and “civility” represent polite formality. Human interaction requires far more. It requires genuine appreciation of others and their diverse viewpoints. Most important, it requires trust.
When people work together toward specific objectives, they try to converge on consensus, to unite in their decision. This requires participants to understand, sympathetically, points of view that differ from their own.
Is there a way we might develop such positive interactions despite our fragmented, polarized society? Might we begin by agreeing on some collective ideals, as our Founding Fathers did? Many of those founders owned slaves. Half a century later, when America was divided over slavery, Abraham Lincoln accepted his party’s nomination for U.S. senator with these words: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.”
One hundred sixty years further along slavery is gone, but its relics live, foremost among them, hate. Hateful attitudes, originating in slavery, have expanded to include anyone who’s not “us.” Whether different in skin tone, religion, or even gender, “those people” still feel the lash of the tongue.
Lincoln was quoting Christ’s warning. Even before Christ, Plato wrote, when “discord occurs, and a city is divided, if both parties destroy the lands and burn the houses of one another, how wicked does the strife appear!”
How wicked does that strife appear today, when politicians destroy the trust and credibility of one another! Lies, deceits, misrepresentations and false accusations do more enduring damage than destruction of property.
Our Founding Fathers wrote the documents that have supported this nation for two and a half centuries. With all their imperfections, and through all this nation’s problems, those foundational documents have supported what is probably the greatest social experiment in human history.
We survived civil war – the ultimate oxymoron – to adapt, grow and prosper. But change is constant. We must continue to deal with it, and we must do it civilly.
Reaching unity requires more than civility. It requires honest attempts to hear and understand concerns of others. Most of all, it requires self-honesty, the ability to recognize and correct our own shortcomings.
Introspection starts with getting past our own egos. It involves recognizing our biases, preconceptions and prejudices, then consciously putting them aside. Sharing common ideals and interests, even within a close group, can produce differing points of view driven by contending egos.
Ask yourself, “What do I believe? Why do I believe it?” Answering these questions honestly is a great start. It prepares us to recognize and understand other points of view.
Next, “Am I ready to dialogue with those whose perspectives are different from mine?” Understanding the substance of what another person is saying is not always easy. Discussion can escalate to argument, with accusations and name-calling. We control the behavior of ourselves only, not others, so we must look inward. Ask, “Am I ready to look past sarcasm and slurs to find substance in another’s point of view? Can I recognize my own intolerance? Can I tolerate the intolerance of others?”
As with rearing children, success often comes through modeling behavior. Can you offer the “soft answer” that “turneth away wrath?” Simply altering our own behavior influences that of others. If we can curb our knee-jerk response to a hurtful comment, we might be able to muster that “soft answer.”
People of diverse political or religious persuasions have good ideas. Recognizing merit in ideas is a first step toward appreciating those ideas, even though we may not wish to accept them entirely. Look for points of agreement. Consider ideas carefully and courteously.
If we can recognize our own biases (we all have ’em), we can filter information dispassionately and avoid being unduly influenced by emotional arguments that either support or attack those biases. Only then can we weigh impartially the merits of opposing viewpoints. We might even be able to integrate and synthesize diverse ideas into a unified solution to a problem. Then we can move collectively toward implementing that solution.
Cooperation and collaboration trump competition and collusion. Civility is a good beginning.
Pete Haug’s eclectic interests and several careers drew him across the U.S. and into China with Jolie, his wife and sometime draconian editor. They retired south of Colfax. He’ll happily supply supporting documentation for any statements if you ask him firstname.lastname@example.org.