In today’s environment, it seems that name calling, personal attacks, and party polarization have led to a nearly unprecedented level of incivility between factions of various personal attitudes, and state and governmental policies. Already, many months prior to the determination of the candidates, and in light of the potential impeachment of the President, the vitriolic rhetoric and general bad manners are likely only going to get worse. With the approach of the 2020 presidential election, we can expect a barrage of political advertisements on social media, the internet, and television, most of which will be negative. As political opinions grow ever more polarized and extreme rhetoric becomes commonplace, can we find a way to find effective ways in which all people, regardless of ideology, can seek compromise, work together, and listen to each other’s ideas?
Americans widely acknowledge that our political climate has dissolved into divisiveness over the past three years, and, so far, there’s no end in sight. Last year, 70 percent of Americans said our country was at least as politically divided as it was during the Vietnam War. Before the holidays, more than half of Americans said they were dreading the idea of even discussing politics with their friends and loved ones.
Civility & Civil Discourse
When we talk about the decline of civility in America, it’s important to explain what we mean by “civility”. Civility is showing mutual respect toward one another. Civil discourse is the free and respectful exchange of different ideas. It entails questioning and discussion, but doing so in a way that respects and affirms all persons, even while critiquing their arguments.
It’s important, when practicing civility and civil discourse, to not only share our viewpoints but to listen to others as well. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, but it does mean we can disagree respectfully. It is possible to be committed to social justice and still think differently about issues and solutions. In fact, it is not only possible – it is likely. Even if we are committed to a common goal, we may also disagree about the means to get there. We will need to have some difficult conversations. If we seek to develop relationships of solidarity across lines of differences, we must be able to engage in constructive and respectful civil discourse.
Employing “ I” and “We”
When we speak in the first person, we are able to express our personal beliefs, thoughts and opinions; often we erroneously use a nebulous “we” – lumping us with an undefined group who may or may not share our thoughts and beliefs. Using “I” helps remove the “us” or “we” and “them” approach which antagonizes and divides. However, there are problems with using “I” as well, especially if the implication is that ‘my thoughts are the only true ones’, as if to say “I am important and you are not; I am smart and you are not”.
A helpful way to use “I” is a way of communicating which allows a person to express how words and actions make them feel without casting any aspersions on the person to whom they are speaking. “When you say this, I feel that.” It works very well as a bridge to civil discourse as opposed to finger-pointing and increased anger. Using “I” statements rather than “we” statements is owning our own “stuff”, and not trying to either force our opinions on someone else or point to someone else as if they were personally an adversary. When personal attacks replace honest debate, no one wins. This kind of attack, no matter the reason, only serves to further divide our communities.
It is our duty and privilege to make room in our hearts for those with whom we disagree. When this underscores all our discussions, opportunities for misunderstanding and anger are decreased. Regardless of our opinions, a Christian is taught to see every other person as a beloved child of God, whose life, needs and opinions are valid.
A Time for Reflection, Prayer and Reconciliation
Now is the time to step away from partisanship and think anew about how we can go forward together. The coming months provide an opportunity for change as Americans seem hungry for a new tone of respect and compromise to emerge in our national conversations. We yearn for elected leaders at the federal, state, and local levels to govern across divides and towards solutions.
There are three things that each one of us can do to promote civil discourse:
- Reflect on the divisions in the country and how we treat those who have different political views
- Pray for the forgiveness, humility and wisdom we need to heal our divisions
- Reach out to other people of faith who have different political views and explore ways to work together.
Guidelines for Civil Discourse
Prior to entering into civil conversation, there needs to be an agreement on guidelines between the parties involved:
- Do not try to change each other’s views; the goal is to learn from each other and look for common ground
- The primary emphasis in these conversations is ‘active listening’ – listen to what is being said instead of formulating in your mind how you will respond
- Be respectful of the other and try not to judge their personal views.
We are told in Luke 6:37:
Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.
- Take turns speaking and ensure that each person has equal time to express their ideas
- Keep the discussion focused on the central question, and don’t get bogged down in irrelevant issues
- Identify and note areas of agreement
- Avoid binary thinking. All issues of today are too complex to fit into simplistic black-or-white categories. Dropping ideas into “either/or” thinking immediately defines one against “the other side”, which limits serious and open engagement; when possible consider ‘both/and’ solutions
- Use language that engages and draws the other into a fruitful exchange of ideas. This requires monitoring and self-censoring the use of dismissive words (such as ‘you may not know about this’, ‘I doubt you will agree with me’).
Guidelines for Use of Social Media
Fewer and fewer people read books and unbiased newspapers, and increasingly people are looking to the internet and their Facebook feeds for information and analysis of social issues. Most people today receive their information through a number of social media instruments (Facebook, Insta-Gram, Twitter, blogs).
Developing a social justice community means that we need to be able to talk about difficult issues in respectful and constructive ways. The question is – can we do that on the internet? As we have already experienced, social media has become a monster that further alienates us from others and provides inaccurate. It is important to note that these sources can be hacked by foreign entities to seek to influence the American people.
Here are some tips of how to stay respectful on social media:
- Check for accuracy – snopes.com and the “i” notation on Facebook both provide means of checking the validity of the entry
- Avoid insults and name calling
- Seek information from other sources (see unbiased newspapers or television news programs, such as NPR or PBS)
- DO NOT respond to a posting that upsets you – take a deep breath and come back to it a little later with a non-emotional response (You DO NOT have to respond to every posting!)
- Remind people of the need for respect in promoting constructive discussions.
While some may argue that a call for civility limits the bounds of free speech, such concerns create a false equivalence between hate speech and a desire for respectful discourse. Our government in Washington must once again become the place where our leaders convene to work together, debate issues, and solve problems for the American people. In order for this to happen, we have to acknowledge that we can disagree without being disagreeable.
Now is not the time to respond with more hate or violence. As Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly stated, and Barack Obama tweeted, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
As soon as we resort to hate speech and violence, attention is taken away from the issue. Even though frustrations may be high, we must always consider the power of our words. We must pause, control our emotions, and resume the conversation only when we feel grounded.
So, let’s make a New Year’s resolution, to work together to revive civility in our lives. Let’s agree that we will let our political leaders know we expect them to live up to our expectations of civility and respect for our country, their constituents, and our institutions. Let us be sure they know that we will hold them accountable when they do not.
As Vocational Deacons, we are charged with ‘bringing the church to the world and the world to the church’. Hopefully, we know the pulse of our congregations, and we are directed to care for all our ‘flock’ equally. This places us in a unique position to facilitate civil discourse within our parishes and the wider community. Let us continue to ‘speak truth to power’ by encouraging all to employ respect, kindness, and accuracy as we go forward into this political season.
Let this be our prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, grant us the gift of understanding. Help us to understand the feelings and desires and goals of others. At the same time, help us to understand ourselves in our actions and reactions. Widen our vision beyond our own small world to embrace with knowledge and love the worlds of others. Help us to guard the words of our mouths that may injure others. Bless us with insight, acceptance, and love that is tempered by you. Help us to understand. Amen.
Published in Diakoneo, Association of Episcopal Deacons; February 2020