Discourse 2018 – A Call for Bold Civility and Radical Kindness

“Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It’s about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.” (Parker Palmer)

Attribution: Donna CameronIt’s been more than a year since, for many of us, the world imploded and taught us lessons we never imagined learning. We saw clearly that values we hold dear are not as universal as we thought, and that some things we took for granted can’t be. We learned that we still have a lot of work to do.

The Stages of Grief

We’ve also been through the traditional stages of grief:

  • Denial – This didn’t really happen; I’ve been dreaming and will wake up to a different reality.
  • Anger – This really happened; how could so many people think a man with no moral compass should lead our nation … and how can so many continue to think so?
  • Bargaining – If we can just get through this, we’ll never again devalue the democratic principles on which our nation was built.
  • Depression – So this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a twitter.
  • Acceptance – Um, this one is hard, I’m really not there yet … my lizard brain keeps looping back to anger, or else I flail in utter bewilderment.

Overlaying all of this is a deep and real sadness, for crumbling civility and the chasm dividing us. There are friends and acquaintances I’ve avoided, partly because I feel disappointment in their choices and find myself questioning their core values, but most of all, because I don’t know if I can uphold my own core values in today’s political, social, and economic environment. What I am really thinking is, “Can I be kind? Can I be civil? Can I make things better rather than exacerbate our differences?” And even, I’m ashamed to say, “Do I want to?”

Out of a desire to understand and be part of the solution, my friend, Barbara, and I recently attended a lecture on “Civil Discourse” at our local community college. The speaker, Professor David Smith, teaches philosophy and religious studies at the University of Washington. It was informative and stimulating. I took pages of notes and want to share just a few of the key ideas about civil discourse he imparted to us.

At its most basic, Dr. Smith defines civility as “treating others with appropriate courtesy and respect.” He stressed that what’s appropriate may vary by culture and circumstance, and also that we can be both respectful and bold at the same time.

For the most part, Smith said, people don’t choose their beliefs. Rather, our beliefs rise within us as we live our lives. They come from how we were raised, our emotions—which are often driven by fear, and our own observations. “Everything we believe is the result of our life story,” he asserted.

Causes of Incivility

Professor Smith noted that there are various reasons for incivility and that they are mostly subconscious:

  1. Failure to recognize my own limitations – These may include intelligence, knowledge, and experience. We’re all wrong about something, but we don’t always recognize that.
  1. Bias – We want certain things to be true and right. Do we value our beliefs more than the truth, or truth more than our own beliefs? It’s an important question to ask. As Dr. Smith noted, “We don’t always want the truth, especially if it means we need to make a change.”
  1. I am X. I don’t just believe X, I am X – Too often we over-identify with a label rather than take the time to discern whether we agree with everything that label represents. Example: “I am a Conservative. I don’t merely believe in conservative values, I am a Conservative.” Replace conservative with liberal, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, etc. The result tends to be that when someone disagrees with us, we take it as a personal attack rather than a simple questioning of a particular belief or conviction.
  1. The incivility of the other person – Their bad behavior triggers our own bad behavior.
  1. Emotion – What would the world be like if the other person’s view dominated? This plays on our fears and phobias.
  1. Uncertainty – Could I really be wrong about some of this?
  1. Affirmation – Are we seeking affirmation from people who are emotionally or intellectually incapable? Look elsewhere. Ideally, affirmation comes from within.
  1. 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?

Ingredients in the Recipe for Civility

Citing the work of philosopher Edward Langerak, Professor Smith described the key components of civility:

Virtue – Most especially humility, self-control, and courage. It’s important to remember that these are traits we develop and instill over our lifetime; they’re not qualities we can switch on or off at will.

Commonality – Recognizing the humanness of others and understanding the process of belief formation.

Intentionality – Focusing on civility before, during, and after the dialogue. We need to be intentional about being civil, and that’s not always easy!

Communication – Committing to effective rules and practices of engagement. This is speaking and listening, disagreeing and agreeing/affirming, being open and willing to find some commonality.

To Converse or Not to Converse. That Is the Question.

It seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget or overlook: we don’t have to engage, the choice is always ours. Some things to consider:

  • Not everyone is a candidate for civil discourse.
  • My own tolerance level for this conversation.
  • Is there a reason to have this conversation? What is the goal?
  • Start with an appetizer (less controversial issue) before jumping to the main course (the big, controversial issue). If the appetizer goes poorly, why proceed?
  • Are we engaging in dialogue or debate? There’s a place for both. Debate is digging in one’s position and doing everything we can to tear down the opposing position; dialogue invites a more open mind and willingness to explore the other position objectively.
  • It’s okay to exclude from serious discourse those who are clearly outside the boundaries of reasonableness, such as Holocaust deniers. People who are this committed to unquestionably false views are not going to change their minds or engage rationally; don’t waste your time.

In closing, Dr. Smith reminded the audience that to be full participants in a civil society, we need to expose ourselves to people with different views, and not just look for people who will confirm our own world view or biases. We need to be open to the possibility that the other side of anything might contain some truth, insight, or wisdom. We need to be both respectful and bold.

As a new year commences, my hope for 2018 is that it brings increased civility and that each of us can recognize our own role in making that happen. I’m drawn to the notion of bold civility and radical kindness as the means to recovering what we have lost.

“The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.”  (Erik Erikson)

A Different Kind of Inconvenient Truth

“Be kind to everybody. Make art and fight the power.” (Colson Whitehead)

Attribution: Donna CameronEvery day, there’s a new one, a new allegation of sexual harassment, abuse, or misconduct, by a person in a position of power toward someone he holds power over. The perpetrator is invariably male, and his victim is usually—but not always—female. This is nothing new. It’s been going on for . . . well, probably forever.

We see it in politics, entertainment and sports, the military, academia, corporate settings, and anywhere else where people work or interact.

Is the Tide Turning?

It seems, though, that we’re beginning to see some changes. People who have been preyed upon are speaking out. The tactics abusers relied on to keep them quiet and to disguise repeat behaviors and patterns—legal settlements, money, threats against career, intimidation, warnings of backlash—are losing their power to silence and shame. Women are speaking their truth. They’re claiming their power, and they aren’t backing down.

The shame women (this includes exploited boys and men) have felt—sometimes for decades—is giving way to an understanding that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They are survivors, they are strong, and they are courageous. As more women say “me, too,” shame loses its might. Strength and resolve take hold.

I don’t like the word “victim,” it carries a lot of baggage. It implies weakness, when, in fact, carrying scars of abuse and speaking out are strengths beyond measure.

It does feel like a tide is finally turning, but before we congratulate ourselves too much on starting down the road to remedy long-overdue injustices, we need to recognize just how tenuous this path is.

There are still situations where it may not be “convenient” to condemn a predator, where some prefer to give them a pass. Take the case of Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore. Five credible women have gone on record describing his sexual advances and predatory behavior toward them when they were teenagers—one as young as 14. There are numerous corroborating witnesses, more than 30 sources total. Yet there remain many people for whom it is more important to elect the ultra-conservative Moore to the Senate than to denounce his vile behavior.

For the people who still support Roy Moore, maintaining their “club” is more important than upholding justice, recognizing truth, or righting wrongs. The “club” may be white nationalism, it may be evangelical Christianity, it may be holding a Republican majority at any cost. Regardless, it’s the club that matters. To these women, and to future victims, they’re saying: You don’t matter.

When people deliberately choose not to believe women or evidence that’s clear and compelling, what message are they sending to children? We want you to speak up if someone tries to hurt you, but be prepared to be disbelieved, shunned, or dismissed if the person wields power, or if your truth is inconvenient.

Want another example? Look no further than the White House. That we elected a predator to the highest and most honored office in the land is our nation’s shame. But one we have the power to rectify.

Is Harassment Training the Answer?

Elsewhere, in our haste to fix, patch, and even minimize a problem we can no longer deny or hide, sexual harassment trainings are being looked to as the solution. Congress has deemed that all lawmakers and their staffs must undergo harassment training. Corporate America and the military are embracing harassment education and training as the solution to the endemic ill-treatment that plagues their workplaces.

That’ll fix things. Those who transgressed in the past, or who stood by and ignored or allowed the predatory behaviors of others, will see the error of their ways, express contrition, and we’ll all link arms (wait, no touching!) and advance together into a future devoid of harassment or abuse. Kumbaya, indeed!

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of sexual harassment training, but anyone who sees it as a panacea that will rout these long-standing, firmly entrenched behaviors is minimizing an enormously complex problem, and is also more than a little bit naïve.

This problem needs to be addressed long before people enter the workplace. It probably needs to be addressed in utero. How we raise our sons and daughters determines how they will behave as adults. What messages are we sending them when they see boys praised for what they do and girls praised for how they look? What messages are we sending when noisy girls are shushed and boisterous boys are encouraged?

I heard a brief, but interesting story on NPR’s Morning Edition the other day. Marketplace senior reporter Sabri Ben-Achour was speaking with Vicki Magley, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, about the implementation of sexual harassment trainings in the workplace.

Magley cautioned that there is still very limited research about the effectiveness of such trainings. Initial outcomes haven’t been all that encouraging. In some cases, training leads to a backlash. Their effectiveness in changing behavior is uncertain and dependent upon whether the organizational culture is perceived as ethical or not by the employees.

In essence, if employees feel the training they are required to take is only window dressing—the company’s way of meeting an obligation or protecting its corporate ass—and it doesn’t truly represent the views and commitment of the organization, they are unlikely to take the training seriously or to respond in any meaningful ways.

Magley cited a 2016 EEOC report which also showed mixed results from harassment training, and suggested that it might be more effective to shift the focus from harassment to civility.

Magley noted, “When you enter into [a training program] prepared to be told that you’ve been naughty, you go in cynical.”

But if you shift the paradigm: “When you enter into a training scenario where you’re being told explicitly that we’re going to give you ideas on how to create community, on how to bond with one another in productive, cohesive collaborative kinds of ways,” it changes the mindset. The training is viewed as an opportunity for growth and professional advancement, rather than as punishment.

This makes so much sense, but again, we mustn’t wait until boys and girls become men and women and join the workforce. Civility must be instilled from the moment they begin to walk and talk. Parents must model these values and teachers must impart them—over and over again until civility and kindness become as elemental as our need for oxygen.

It starts with civility . . . . It starts with kindness.

“Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind.” (Charles M. Schwab)