Civility is Hard
Civility is hard, it is very hard. Political civility is especially hard. It is hard because it depends on doing something that very few of us find easy or enjoyable. It depends on us listening thoughtfully to the ideas and opinions of those with whom we disagree and considering them objectively.
In fact, most often we lack the willingness or the mental and emotional resources to put ourselves in the shoes of another person and consider, even for a moment, that our positions could be improved through the input of those we veiw as adversaries. In the worst case we go out of our way to avoid or dismiss, without consideration, any opposing opinion.
In this case civility doesn’t stand a chance, compromise and common ground remain elusive, conflict becomes a permanent state of affairs and violence is always close at hand.
In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way. “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and non-violence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessments of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weakness of our own condition and, if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
When we ignore our brother and sisters as a potential source of wisdom, and try to beat them down with our own rhetoric, we are standing in the way of civil discourse.
Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer observed that “to understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think Liberals are stupid and Liberals think Conservatives are evil.”
If Krauthammer is even mostly right, civility, as well as our self-governing Democracy, is seriously threatened. Lincoln once said, “We cannot live half free and half slave.” I say, “We cannot live half stupid and half evil.” But it would be a big step forward if we were to become half enlightened.
I am in my 70s and was a Republican until the Southern Strategy and IranContra pushed me into being an Independent Voter. I try to listen but my hearing is drown out by the anger, religiosity, guns, hate speech, anti science, anti education and fear of the people who term themselves Conservatives. I am told by folks that any attempt to compromise is only a display of unwillingness to gain our goals. How can I have a civil discourse with this noise?
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Couldn’t agree more. The largest roadblock appears to be that ‘civil discourse’ is not seen to have any value whatsoever. We’re a competitive (to the point of combative) society. Cooperation is seen as a necessary (and ideally temporary) evil at best and an outright weakness at worst. Survival of the fittest and all that.
To be clear, I’m strongly in favor of economic competition. I believe we have much of our economic strength from this approach. But we’ve promoted and adopted it to the point of self-destruction. And, what’s worse, it seems to have been adopted as entertainment, not unlike the gladiator competitions of Ancient Rome.
Swinging between extremes seems to be part of the human condition. It will occasionally happen regardless of what we do. But we shouldn’t seek them out. And, when we find ourselves there, we definitely shouldn’t unpack and move in. There, truly, be dragons for us all.