On Civility

Last month, I attended an event where New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman spoke. Friedman asked an important and thought provoking question, “What would we be talking about, if we weren’t talking about Donald Trump?”

Friedman’s point was that there are a number of important issues with which our community, the country, and the world should be engaging. Nevertheless, our attention seems obsessively drawn to the things the President is doing and whether we agree or disagree with those actions.

Make no mistake, the actions of the President are indeed consequential. However, to Friedman’s point, it is these important matters which should also command our attention.

Engaging in these important issues, both locally and nationally, has become increasingly difficult in this era of polarization. The causal forces for this polarization are complex and interconnected. They include such elements as the dynamics of social media interactions, the proliferation of fake news designed to ignite political extremism, and the active interference of outside governments who wish to sow dysfunction within our nation. Taken together, winner-take-all and “damn the opposition” political attitudes have taken deep root.

Over this past month, I have had the opportunity to be part of three different conversations on the issue of civil discourse with community leaders in Jefferson County. The leaders I spoke with had diverse political perspectives and viewpoints. While the proposed means varied, all shared the same goal: we have to find a way to talk to each other and tackle issues of substance in our community, if not also our nation and world.

Based on these experiences, as well as a variety of interactions I’ve had recently, I’d like to offer 5 rules of engagement that might lead to better conversations. These rules could be applied in formal political settings, in online discussions, and in conversations between neighbors or families.

1. Take up issues of real substance and importance, with a genuine commitment to understanding others. While politics and religion are sometimes taboo subjects at many functions, it is the substantive issues which impact our community that we really need to be talking about. We can take on sensitive and complicated issues if we begin by committing to sharing the airtime (giving sides equal opportunities to talk) and listening to each other without interruption.

2. Work toward a shared view of truth. The facts are going to matter if our issue is of real importance and those facts should be open to critique for bias and subject to validation. Logic matters as well – and conclusions that do not follow from the evidence should be identified. The work here should be toward uncovering truth and not diminishing or attacking a person.

3. Recognize mutually positive, but also opposing, values. Some of the most important matters we need to wrestle with are matters of positive, but competing, values. Take the immigration question as an example. On the conservative side, the values are around such things as security, concerns over drug trade and human trafficking, and the preservation of opportunities for people in the country legally. On the liberal side, there are values around inclusion, the humane treatment of all people, and the economic and workforce value that immigrants provide. Both of these perspectives raise valid points for consideration and all of these values come from a positive place, though they can be in conflict, depending on the topic.

4. Look for the third way. Good and sustainable public policy balances those mutually positive, but also competing, values in a way that reflects our society. One regrettable aspect of human nature is that we tend to see things in dichotomies – good/bad, wrong/right, left/right, us/them. In reality, the world has a lot more shades of gray and we can often find creative and mutually beneficial outcomes if we take ideas from all sides. Unilaterally imposed ideas rarely stand the test of time.

5. Don’t feed the “trolls.” In my experience, most people value and appreciate treating each other with dignity and respect. However, there are certainly those who thrive on “flaming” others and who serve as never-ending fountains of criticism, which is often mean-spirited and personal in nature. We less-than-affectionately call these individuals “trolls” and perhaps the most effective thing you can do when you encounter one is to deprive them of the attention they seek. Consider instead how you can find and engage with those who will push thinking forward to better outcomes, and who ultimately thrive on building up, rather than tearing down.

One of the founding ideals of our democratic republic is that we are better able to create and sustain that “more perfect union” through the free exchange of ideas. Civil discourse should not mean that we avoid discussing the tough and important issues – but it does mean that we should strive to meet those issues with a deep and mutual appreciation for each other as people.

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