The last two weeks have reminded me anew just how divided the people of the United States of America are. And I’ve noticed an utter lack of civility, even or especially in myself.
With racial tensions mounting, police being targeted, speeches being plagiarized, Donald Trump continuing to run for president as the Donald from the Apprentice during the Republican National Convention, and the week-long Democratic National Convention looming, there is much that all of us disagree about.
And that’s not a bad thing. Disagreement, in my experience and estimation, can lead to deepening of relationships. Disagreement can lead to personal growth. Disagreement can lead to one party or the other changing their mind. And disagreement can even lead to lasting peace.
But there’s an important ingredient that needs to be added to disagreement in order to help it bear good fruit. And that ingredient is civility.
What is Civility?
Merriam-Webster defines civility as “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.” I believe this definition pretty much sums it up.
When we disagree, which we always will but especially in times like these, we must be polite! What do I mean?
Well, let’s start with some impolitenesses that I’ve seen or that I’ve taken part in.
It’s impolite to:
- Belittle the ideas of others
- Read into the words of others what they did not intend
- Call each other names
- See the worst in others while wanting to be given the benefit of the doubt
- Call into question someone’s faith because they disagree with you
- Assume everyone from a certain group is the same
- Etc., etc., etc.
And, boy let me tell you!, I’ve seen and taken part in lots of impoliteness lately! Civility has gone straight out the window. I will say, however, that I have tried my best to interact with the ideas of others and ask about their intentions. I think doing so is polite since I really like it when people do the same for me! Hey, maybe Jesus was onto something with that ol’ Golden Rule thing!
The next part of the definition of civility is that it is marked by reasonableness.
Now this part is a bit more tricky. Sometimes we disagree with others because we believe they are being unreasonable or that their arguments don’t make logical sense or don’t match the data. Those things are fine so long as we are polite and respectful.
But during a disagreement it is easy to lapse into the unreasonable really quickly. Here’s a great example, during a disagreement about a specific point, it’s really tempting to bring in unrelated points to continue to pile on the person we are disagreeing with. This is unreasonable! It’s better to stick to the subject at hand instead of sliding all over the place.
Frankly it’s not fair to the person with whom you disagree to jump all over the place all the time. It would be like someone throwing you thirteen balls all at once and then yelling at you from dropping some of them!
But another thing that is unreasonable during a disagreement is letting our emotions, especially our anger, cloud our abilities to argue our point well. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I am angry I lose my train of thought really, really, really easily. And when I do this, I stop making a logical argument and start jumping all over. And then it only makes me more angry that the person I disagree with can’t follow me! How unfair of me!
Civility, on the other hand, demands that we stay on topic and they we do our best to remain level-headed.
And the last part of civility has to do with respect.
This one is really hard, especially when you think the person with whom you disagree is making stupid arguments. The easy way disrespect is shown is by not engaging a person’s arguments at all and instead attacking them as a person. Here are some examples:
- You’re a Democrat so you obviously can’t be a Christian!
- You’re a Republican so you obviously can’t be a Christian!
- You’re a woman and therefore your emotions are getting the better of you!
- You’re a man and thus you can’t demonstrate empathy!
- You’re a person of faith so you can’t think critically!
- You’re an atheist so you obviously have no morals!
- Etc., etc., etc.
Implicit and Explicit Racism
Particularly disrespectful are when our words are influenced by implicit or explicit racism. Obviously using racial slurs is disrespectful and fails all the rules of civility. But implicit racism sneaks in all the time too. Here are two examples that have haunted me more than once: 1) Insisting on talking to a person of color about how many friends of color you have if you’re white (as if having some friends of color somehow makes what you are saying in the moment less prejudiced!); and 2) When finding out that a person of color graduated college, asking them if they are the first in the their family (something we’d almost never ask a white person).
But if we want to demonstrate civility we must respect one another. I think the basic idea of respect in this context is putting the interests of the person with whom you disagree before you own. This will be hard. But when you want to be angry and lash out, stop and think instead about how they might take what you’re about to say. When you feel the urge to overgeneralize, stop and think instead about how it feels when someone does that to you. And when you feel the insatiable desire to call someone a name, stop and think instead just how pointless it is to do so and how much it hurts when someone does it to you.
Friends, we need to show more civility to one another!
What do you think about how I wrote about civility? Am I on the right track? What do you think? How can we forge more civil disagreements with one another? Let me know in the comments below.