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Crossing the Bridge to Civility

“We’re all just walking each other home.” (Ram Dass)

Nearly three years ago, still reeling with disbelief and grief from the election that had called into question everything I believed about my country and my fellow Americans, a friend and I attended a lecture on “Civil Discourse.” The speaker was a University of Washington philosophy and religious studies professor, David Smith. I found Dr. Smith’s words both enlightening and comforting and wrote about them in-depth here.

In recent weeks, I find myself going back to the notes I took that day and thinking more deeply about what he said. It speaks to me not just of the looming election, but also these last many months of racial and social unrest, lived amidst a global pandemic … and, ultimately, our responsibility to care for one another, no matter who, no matter what.

Dr. Smith cited several reasons why we treat one another with incivility and disrespect, noting that we’re often not even aware of what drives our behavior. This, he said, is because most people don’t consciously choose their beliefs. “Everything we believe is the result of our life story.” Our beliefs rise within us as we live our lives. They come from how we were raised, our observations and emotions—which are often driven by fear.

Perhaps this knowledge gives us some insight into the people who do and say things that bewilder us. Perhaps it also gives us some insight into ourselves….

Causes of Incivility

  • Failure to recognize our own limitations – These may include intelligence, knowledge, and experience. We’re all wrong about something, but we don’t always recognize that. A most obvious example of this is the current president, who is unable to acknowledge mistakes or even admit that he doesn’t know something—a dangerous failing for someone whose decisions impact lives and economies. At a personal level, don’t we all occasionally find it hard to admit our shortcomings and our errors? The remarkable thing is that when we finally do, people respect us for it and we feel freer to be ourselves. This is one of life’s great lessons.
  • Bias – We want certain things to be true. And we cling to our beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. As Dr. Smith noted, “We don’t always want the truth, especially if it means we need to make a change.” This brings anti-maskers to mind. For whatever reasons, they are determined to believe that masks aren’t a deterrent to the COVID-19 virus. Overwhelming evidence cannot budge them. We see it, too, when people cry “fake news” whenever they hear something that does not support their world view. Before we condemn them for their unthinking rigidity, perhaps we should examine some of our own biases.
  • I am X. I don’t just believe X, I am X – Some people over-identify with a label rather than take the time to discern whether they agree with everything that label represents. Example: “I am a Liberal. I don’t merely believe in liberal values, I am a Liberal.” Replace liberal with conservative, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, etc. As a result, when someone disagrees with us, we take it as a personal attack, rather than a simple questioning of a particular belief or conviction. On the other side of this coin, there are people claim to hate X [conservatives, liberals, Democrats, Republicans…] and thus they will hate everything about that person, refusing to interact civilly or to see anything but the demon label they have affixed to them.
  • The incivility of the other person – Their bad behavior triggers our own bad behavior. I’ve written about this so many times. If we can only learn to pause and remember that because someone else is behaving like a jerk doesn’t mean we must, too. Breaking that cycle of incivility changes everything. It confounds the person who’s misbehaving and takes the wind from their sails. It deflates their power and awards the win to you (and civility).
  • Emotion – We’re triggered by fears of what the world would be like if the other person’s view dominated. We see this in so many political ads, which not only play on existing fears, but seek to incite new ones and demonize whole groups of people. We see it in the movement for racial justice, too, where some people fear losing their privilege or entitlement if others achieve equity.
  • Uncertainty – Could I really be wrong about some of this? Related to the earlier bullet about admitting our errors, letting go of long-held beliefs is hard. It threatens our selfhood. We’ve seen examples of people leaving the white supremacy movement or other cults and realizing how controlled they had been by the powers of hate and fear. We see it in the people who are unable to admit they may have erred in voting for a corrupt and incompetent man four years ago. Perhaps we all carry some long-held beliefs that might need examining.
  • Closed-mindedness – Are we unwilling to consider alternative information or beliefs that might be inconvenient or uncomfortable? Can we hold our convictions and still be open-minded? This goes beyond mere bias to the unwillingness to even consider that there may be alternate points of view. We can see this in religious zealotry, political jingoism, and xenophobia. It has always seemed to me that anyone so unwilling to examine their beliefs is probably not all that secure in them.

Dr. Smith defined civility quite simply as “treating others with appropriate courtesy and respect.” He reminded us that to be full participants in a civil society, we need to expand beyond a circle of people who confirm our own opinions and biases, and interact with people who don’t share our views. We need to be open to the possibility that the other side of anything might contain some truth, something we can learn from.

At this critical juncture, as we seek to change the direction of our discourse, my hope is that each of us will see that we have a role in making that happen. In the words of the late Congressman John Lewis:

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

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