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)

Being Kind To People We Don’t Like

“Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are.” (Author Unknown) 

Attribution: Donna CameronTry as we might, there are probably still going to be people we just don’t like and probably never will. I’m not talking about the crooks, criminals, and psychopaths whom we wisely disdain and avoid, but the everyday disagreeable creatures, nuisances, and scalawags who populate our lives and challenge us in unwelcome ways.

We encounter them occasionally—the ornery neighbor, the obstinate board member, the know-it-all acquaintance, the perpetually petulant client. We can ignore them to the degree possible, but even then they’re still present, a plaguing irritation that brings clouds to otherwise sunshiny days.

Radical Kindness

What if we engage in radical kindness to not only tolerate our encounters with taxing people, but to learn to see them as likable and even admirable? To feel gratitude for these people in our lives?

If we approach our encounters with the irritants in our lives with a spirit of inquiry and openness, we may be surprised to learn that the everyday jerks we encounter have some pretty good qualities. We may also recognize that there are likely to be people who see us as the everyday jerks in their lives.

I have noted many times before that I am a firm believer in the notion that what we look for is generally what we see. So those people who spend their days looking for things to criticize find them everywhere, and people who look for the good find good at every turn.

What would happen if instead of avoiding or grudgingly accepting the annoying people in our lives—the ones we’ve never learned to like—we deliberately look for their kindness? Maybe it’s not evident on the surface, but if we look deeper, we’re going to find it. Maybe that board or committee member who sets everyone’s teeth on edge with their negativity and self-promotion does pro-bono work in underserved communities. Or maybe we can appreciate their commitment to the organization even if we struggle to appreciate their methods. Maybe that neighbor who complains about everything and yells at kids for making too much noise loves animals and takes care of wounded birds. And maybe his kindness is masked by shyness, fear, or social ineptitude.

What if, knowing our path is going to cross with a person we have not been able to like, we determine that we will look for their kindness and find a way for their kindness and ours to intersect? We will go beyond merely gritting our teeth and tolerating the person to recognizing their kindness and welcoming them into our lives.

I’m lucky that there are very few people in my life whom I dislike. Over the years I’ve seen that people I may initially feel some aversion toward become quite likable once I get to know them. They didn’t change, I did. Everything changes once I turn off that judge-y part of me and recognize that a behavior I find displeasing may be the result of fear, uncertainty, or clumsiness. We’re all just doing the best we can, and for most of us our best will always be imperfect, since we are a work-in-progress until the day we die.

To overcome any dislike I may feel, I’ve been trying to look for the kindness in those few objectionable people I encounter. Kindness is there—in nearly everyone—and it’s surprisingly easy to find. What I’m learning is that I am better able to separate the person from their behaviors. So I can say now I appreciate that person, even if I don’t like or understand some of their actions. There are exceptions to every rule and I am finding Donald Trump to be that exception. I’m sure he has likable qualities—he’d be the first to say so—but appreciation for him has not been easy to muster.

There are bound to be some people who seem to defy all efforts to be seen as likable. They’re in our lives for a reason, and an important one. From them, we learn tolerance, or perhaps patience, or perhaps we recognize some quality of our own which in them is magnified to a degree that is instantly offensive. If nothing else, perhaps we can appreciate them for their role as being a warning to others to not behave this way (thanks, Donald!). With these few individuals our choice then becomes whether to let them negatively influence our behaviors and beliefs, or to look harder for their kindness, and to extend kindness as best we can and be grateful for what we have learned from them.

We never go wrong if we look for the kindness.

“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)