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 my growth as a human being.
The problem is that we disagree disagreeably. Most disagreeably. And it is getting worse, not better. The reality 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 the public conversation of their voice. These people may well be the majority but we have no metrics to measure them. In fact, they seem inclined to say publicly what they are “supposed” to say and privately hold (and vote) according to their own convictions. This may be why political polls are failing more and more (did anyone watch the Presidential Election?). Others have been acculturated that being “right” (and proving everyone else wrong) is the ultimate virtue so they busy themselves throwing round house punches (from both the left and the right sides). When they are in power they listen to no one and when they are out of power they scream, yell, call people names and tear up stuff. We hear their angry voices too much and may incorrectly infer that they are the prevailing opinion based on volume alone. Neither silence nor screaming 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 how to recover civility:
1. 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 talk politics or religion. Differing opinions on important topics require withdrawals from emotional bank accounts. Relationships make deposits. When we are overdrawn, nothing good is going to happen.
2. 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?”
3. 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.
4. 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 piping hot about twenty-five hours a day. Make your goal empathy and reject antipathy.
5. 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. Simmer. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. Learn to associate high inner stress with silence.
6. Obtain information 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 getting information widely, I find an intellectual baseline for a conversation and gain some credibility with people who stand on the other side of an issue. Change your news channel every now and then.
7. Be honest
PC culture is a disaster. We all walk on eggshells. We lie with our silence. Telling people what we really think and how we really feel is essential but we must learn do it with love on one hand and the chip off our shoulders on other other.
8. 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. Stay at the table. Just remember you manners.
9. Keep smiling
I often tell people, “I am an orthodox United Methodist Pastor but I’m not in a bad mood about it and I’m not going to argue about it.”
10. 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. Uncivil behavior lets in heat, keeps out light, distorts the mission, keeps our national problems from being addressed and our wounds from healing. We have been damaged. All of us.
Here is the deal: We do not all think alike. We do not all look 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, purpose and an ethic by which to live. And we all need to figure out how to get along with each other. Fast.
Civility is not the end game, the end game is a free, united and prospering nation. But civility is a choice that each of us can make…not in theory but in practice.
And not tomorrow but today.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997