Civility, Symbols and Beliefs
In the Fall of 1995 Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League announced that he was moving the team from Cleveland to Baltimore. To say that the announcement triggered a period of mourning in Northeast Ohio and beyond would be a Super Bowl sized understatement.
The Cleveland Browns were formed in the late forties and joined the NFL in 1950. From 1950 to 1995 they had gone through changes in ownership, dozens of coaches and hundreds of players. The one thing that was consistent was the name “Cleveland Browns” and that was the thing that provided a focal point for hundreds of thousands of devoted, if not rabid fans. Losing that symbol was like losing a member of the family.
Politicians ranted, sports writers raved, fans shed tears and some felt that the most meaningful part of their lives had been ripped away and that the future was grim at best. And then, as in response to thousands of prayers, rosaries, novenas and all night vigils, the football gods influenced the NFL to award a new franchise to Cleveland. In an historic act of compassion, the NFL gave the new team the rights to the name, colors and logos of the old Browns.
In two short years the new owners fielded a new team with all new players and coaches. The fans were happy because a football team called the Cleveland Browns was again on the field wearing brown and orange colors and the little brownie logo was again omnipresent. The tailgaters were in the parking lot of the new stadium before sunrise of game day and, once again, all was right in the Cleveland football world.
The important point of this is that when it comes to sports the fans don’t care about the owners, the coaches or even the players. What matters most are the symbols with which they can identify. The team uniform matters far more than the player wearing it. The fans (which is short for fanatics) also wear the symbols. On game day the Brown’s stadium is a sea of orange and brown shirts, hats and even face and body paint and the parking lot is filled with cars sporting Browns logos and some are even painted orange and brown uniting the fans in the stands with the players on the field in one huge tribal ritual celebrating group superiority.
A harmless exercise to be sure. Similar to a coming together of large groups of people united around social and political causes like global warming, gun rights, affirmative action and many more. It is a hereditary human need to support a righteous cause and enjoy the perceived virtuous image that goes with it.
Where the virtue gets somewhat tainted is in the failure to respect the view of those whose righteous cause is different from our own. Rather than give thoughtful consideration to opposing opinions they are often dismissed as mean spirited, naive, uninformed, evil or just plain stupid. This happens when emotional attachment to symbols supersedes rational thought or empirically demonstrable truths. Our desire to identify with what appears to be a morally and intellectually superior position can actually override our ability to judge and analyze relevant information.
Moreover, our desire to discredit and demean individuals and groups whose conclusions differ from ours can throw a major roadblock in the way of meaningful, productive discussions. Insults and personal attacks are distractions from substantive issues and will turn a potentially civil discussion into a grudge match. Our allegiance, loyalty and commitment to our team color stand in the way of developing and identifying our collective wisdom and applying it to problems that need solved. In order to come out on top we choose a bad combination of moral fervor and mental blindness that leads to no good outcome for anyone.
As rational humans we have the capacity to reason together and produce results that no one person or group could accomplish alone, but first we need to establish a relationship that makes that result possible. In the end we may not agree, but at least we should try to understand where we disagree.
Most rational people know that our problems aren’t going to be solved until we find common ground and common ground is not going to be found until we encounter each other in a civil manner. Roberts Rules of Order and the conventions observed in legislative bodies were designed to at least give rational problem solving a chance. Referring to an opponent as “My esteemed colleague from the great State of Texas” is more likely to win support than caling him a jerk in the cheesy cowboy boots. In fact, winning support is often not a priority any more than booing your team’s opponent is intended to convince them to let your team win.
Civil Discourse is the door opener to the arena of possibilities that lead to the fulfillment of our human potential. The result of tribal warfare or the battle of symbols is all around us in military cemeteries, inner-city poverty, under achieving schools, government waste, etc.
We can and must do better.