I don’t think it is a problem that people in America disagree on things. In fact, I think that is a good thing. If everyone in my life agreed with me on everything, I would live unchallenged. And as good as that initially sounds, it is antithetical to growth as a human being. I am not always right. I need people around me who love me enough to tell me so. The problem is that we disagree disagreeably. Most disagreeably.
The problem is that many people don’t know how to have civil discourse concerning the things upon which they disagree. It is not always their fault. Many Americans are simply not equipped to have difficult discussions so they keep silent and rob their conversation of their voice. These very “nice” and often silent people may well be the majority but we have no metrics to measure them. In fact, they seem inclined to say publically what they are “supposed” to say and privately hold to their own convictions. This may be why political polls are failing more and more. Others have been acculturated that being “right” (and proving everyone else wrong) is the ultimate virtue so they busy themselves throwing round house punches (often from the safe distance of Social Media). We hear their voices too much and may incorrectly infer that they are the prevailing opinion based on volume alone. Neither approach serves us well. We have some real challenges in this country and we are going to have to all work together to address them.
Here are my thoughts on a more civil discourse:
- Build relationships We talk differently to people for whom we care (regardless of their positions). Perhaps we should discuss the names of our kids before we discuss who we support for president. Differing opinions on important topics require withdrawals from emotional bank accounts. Relationships make deposits. When we are overdrawn, nothing good is going to happen.
- Vow to do no harm There is no reason to hurt people and things said in hurtful ways eradicate all possibility of honest and helpful conversation. I come across so many inciting posts these days and wonder, “What possible good can come out of that?”
- Show some respect People who think differently than we often have very different life experiences. Knowing that if you came from a different race or a different place, you may think differently than you do, is a good foundation upon which respect can be built.
- Converse to hear So often we enter discourse strictly to be heard. We can’t wait for the person talking to shut up so we can set them straight. This unhelpful dynamic is what the television news shows serve up twenty-four hours a day. Make your goal empathy and reject antipathy.
- Control your impulses Every stressed person in the world wants to say dumb crap. Our hearts beat fast, adrenaline surges and we want to deliver a single knock-out punch to our opponent to end our discomfort. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. Learn to associate high inner stress with silence.
- Read more widely An understanding that people of good character, faith and intelligence can posit somewhere differently than you have on an issue is essential to civil discourse. By reading widely, I find an intellectual baseline for a conversation and gain some credibility with people who stand on the other side of an issue.
- Be honest PC culture is a disaster. We all walk on eggshells. We lie with our silence. Telling people what you actually think and how you really feel is essential but we must do it with love.
- Stay at the table The most powerful affirmation you can offer someone during the “heat of the moment” is to “stay in it” when they know most everyone else holding your position would have walked away. Presence can be powerful: A non-anxious presence more powerful yet.
- Keep smiling I love to tell people, “I am an orthodox Christian but I’m not in a bad mood about it.”
- Remember the Golden Rule Don’t treat people like they treat you. Treat others the way you wish to be treated. You don’t “deserve” to be disrespected and others don’t either.
I am troubled by America’s lack of civility. It widens our rifts, lets in heat, keeps out light and keeps our national wounds from healing. A lack of civility pervades politics. It pervades the church. It damages us. All of us.
Here is the deal: We do not all think alike. We do not all worship alike. We do not all vote alike. But we are very much alike. We all need faith, hope and love. We all need community. We all need purpose. And we all need to figure out how to get along with each other. Civility is not the end game, the end game is a united and prospering nation. But civility is a hopeful path upon which people who think very differently can sojourn…together.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois