The whole point of civil discourse is understanding. When you discuss a topic with someone who disagrees with you, an important first step is to just listen to what they are saying. You need to understand what they think and feel before you can arrive at any kind of judgement about the validity of their position.
Civil discourse is not about trying to change someone’s mind. And it’s not about giving up your own values, or trying to avoid conflict altogether. It’s about disagreeing without being disagreeable. It’s about being open and respectful enough to consider a different viewpoint, so we can engage in the healthy deliberation of ideas that a successful democracy requires.
If you start off by assuming that your view is right and their view is wrong, it will be very difficult to keep an open mind. If you listen carefully, you might learn something (about the issue and even about your own view of it). You might just change your position. But even if you don’t change your view, the discussion may help you to work toward a practical arrangement (or compromise) that will allow you both to find an acceptable way to work together to solve a problem. This is how government could work.
This is not easy, of course.You need to be willing to be uncomfortable. If it were easy, we would not be living in such a polarized America today. There is a giant power struggle going on in our government; our elected officials are divided over important issues and even over the nature, purpose and structure of our government. How can we address this problem? We’ll probably have better luck if we start locally, instead of trying to solve all the world’s problems at one stroke. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. As Mark Hews told us recently, there is an old saying: If you walk twelve miles into the woods, you have to walk twelve miles back. The polarization problem in our society and in our government didn’t start yesterday; this has been going on for quite some time. And it won’t be fixed overnight.
Some people don’t want to walk out of the woods, of course. They may try to convince you that you aren’t in the woods at all. To stretch this analogy to the breaking point, it is possible to get lost in the woods and not be able to get back. The analogy assumes that you start someplace and want to return to that place (for example, “Make America Great Again”). Some people can’t agree that we are in the woods, some people insist that we should continue in the direction we are currently going and some want to just stay right where we are: it’s nice here, why go forward or back?
So, for example, whether you agree with the notion that climate change is caused by humans or not, could you agree that the climate is definitely changing? Does it cause you concern? Are you worried about losing the lobster industry or driving through two feet of standing water in your city? How about increasingly powerful hurricanes devastating places where you or your family live? My point here is: we have to find agreement on the facts to have a meaningful conversation. If you can’t even pause to learn if you agree on the meaning of the language you are using to talk about an issue, there isn’t much hope of learning something (beyond the fact that you don’t agree about something)! There are a number of ducks to line up to have civil discourse.
We recently attended a Forum on the Future event hosted by UMA Senior College [Our Political Discourse – Can We Be More Civil], with Senator Roger Katz, Doug Rooks and Mark Hews on the panel moderated by Marilyn Canavan. The panelists found broad agreement on the causes for the increase of uncivility in modern political discourse: big money, negative advertising and politicians who only associate with those who share their views. Historically, spending more time interacting socially with each other made compromise possible. Recently the climate of “us vs. them” seems to prevail (a struggle for dominance rather than a search for ways to agree on solutions). Listening is very hard for everyone, but essential forpoliticians to get anything accomplished.
We invited Mark Hews to join MMPF at Selah Tea to talk about how we could improve the discussions we have here in Waterville. We talked to Mark for over an hour and peppered him with questions and passionately shared our own opinions about the value of even attempting to have civil conversations with people with whom we disagree (such as people who dismiss us as elitist or evil, or whom we dismiss as reprehensible, who verbally impugn the motivation of elected officials, etc.). There is no magic answer. But there is something we can all do to lower the temperature in the room (which will help). There is a grassroots initiative to revive civility and respect in Maine [Maine Revives Civility]. Mark is working for the National Institute for Civil Discourse to promote civility in our communities. If you are tired of incivility in your community, contact Mark Hews (Maine State Coordinator) at 207-577-0209 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the project, check out www.revivecivility.org. The good news is that the desire for more civility in our society is growing. In the 2018 “Civility in America” survey by Weber Shandwick Polling Company, 93% of the public agrees that the nation has a civility problem and 83% of the public say incivility leads to intolerance of free speech.
The League of Women Voters of Oregon has some great material on promoting civil discourse in local communities. Another interesting resource is Janet Givens’ blog [And So It Goes]; beginning in February 2017, she wrote a series of blog posts on Civil Discourse in the New Age (and she found and shared some of the same images I have included in this blog post). Attempts to bridge the divide between our differences have been popping up all over the country. Considering the recent spate of violence and hate that has dominated the headlines, it is good to know that we are not alone in our desire to learn how to talk to each other without responding to the fear and anger being stoked by some of our “leaders“.