Silence Isn’t Golden. SPLC Offers a Constructive Guide to Speaking Up

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Elie Wiesel)

Attribution: Donna CameronFollowing my last post on civility, I had some great conversations with friends—both via the comments section of the blog and in actual face-to-face conversations (yes, we still occasionally have those—and they’re remarkably energizing!). Some of the conversations have centered around specific instances of incivility:

  • What do you do when it’s your boss who says…?
  • I don’t know how to respond when I see someone do….
  • My father-in-law says things like….
  • I thought of just the right thing to say while I was driving home….

I’ve talked before about theoretical kindness and practical kindness, and how understanding kindness and even having kind intentions doesn’t always translate to kind actions. Stuff gets in the way. And one of the biggest barriers is our own uncertainty, clumsiness, and hesitation. It’s not that we don’t want to step in or speak out, but we want to do it right. And acting in ways that are constructive may take deliberation. There are plenty of people who speak without considering the effect their words may have. I don’t want to add to that cacophony unless my words are beneficial and healing.

I’ve found it helpful to try to anticipate comments or behaviors I may encounter and then try to envision how I might respond—not just what I hope I will say, but how I will say it and even how I will feel and carry myself as I do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a resource at our fingertips to suggest how we might respond in a variety of situations, and reinforce our own skill development? As luck would have it, there is such a resource and I recommend it highly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center—a respected organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for all—has created a practical and informative guide entitled “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry.” It provides guidance for how to respond in a variety of situations, from an ethnic slur voiced by a neighbor, to a family member’s ingrained bigotry, discrimination by a business, bullying, or a teacher’s vocal bias in the classroom. It even helps us to recognize and repair our own biases.

This practical guide includes links to three dozen potential situations we might encounter and suggests how to speak up in ways that open dialogue and don’t escalate conflict.

Some of the situations addressed:

The Guide is available as a link you can revisit over and over, and also as a PDF you can download and share with family and friends. Parents may want to use it to have some meaningful and constructive dinner table conversations.

Here’s an example of one of the situations explored:

What Can I Do About Workplace Humor?

As soon it becomes clear that a coworker is commencing to tell an inappropriate joke—one that puts down a certain group of people or uses offensive language, it’s time to speak up. You can very calmly say, “Please don’t tell it.” Similarly, if reference is made to a race, religion, or country, and someone reacts by making derogatory comments that they think are funny, you can hold up a hand and say quietly, but firmly, “Don’t, please don’t.”

If your request is ignored, and the speaker proceeds, SPLC offers some strategies for responding:

Don’t laugh. Meet a bigoted “joke” with silence, and maybe a raised eyebrow. Use body language to communicate your distaste for bigoted “humor.”

Interrupt the laughter. “Why does everyone think that’s funny?” Tell your co-workers why the “joke” offends you, that it feels demeaning and prejudicial. And don’t hesitate to interrupt a “joke” with as many additional “no” messages as needed.

Set a “not in my workspace” rule. Prohibit bigotry in your cubicle, your office or whatever other boundaries define your workspace. Be firm, and get others to join in. Allies can be invaluable in helping to curb bigoted remarks and behavior at the workplace.

Provide alternate humor. Learn and share jokes that don’t rely on bias, bigotry or stereotypes as the root of their humor.

The beautiful thing about these strategies is that they’re simple, affirming, and they can be practiced. They remind us that standing up for what’s right is both our responsibility and our privilege as world citizens.

I hope you’ll help spread the word about SPLC’s outstanding and informative guide to responding to bigotry.

 “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

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)