Being Civil (and More) in 2017

Being Civil in 2017Are you concerned—maybe even distraught—about the rancorous division that seemed to infect our society in 2016? I am.

Four years ago, it was easy for me to hope this country would become more of one mind regarding a host of issues: race, religion, immigration, terrorism, the environment and the LGBTQ community. But by the end of 2016 that hope was dangling by a thin thread. And as we enter 2017, more division seems to lie ahead— a time of pitting “Us” against “Them.”

The divide between people seems to grow like a snowball rolling downhill. Maybe that’s because when the world feels like a mess, we tend to see a lot of enemies. And seeing enemies makes us retreat to a place of comfort. For me that means connecting with the people who I agree with. Do you do that too?

The trouble is, when we only connect with like-minded people, we end up in an echo chamber where we don’t have to connect with those “others,” and by not connecting, we contribute to the very division we object to. Folks on “the other side” do the same thing.

Maybe one way to lessen the division and rancor is to get out of that space where our thinking is reinforced without challenge.

I am going to push myself to do just that. But at the same time, I want to be honest about my personal values and my views on the problems my country faces. I can think of three ways to get out of my echo chamber—and do it in a positive way.

First: When I speak, I will be civil.

For me, being civil means remembering the old fashioned word: “manners.” So being civil means using respectful language.This is usually easy when I am speaking face to face with someone, even if it is someone whose views I dislike. But it’s easy to be disrespectful when I use social media like Twitter and Facebook. These media create a distance between me and the other so I can use sarcasm, disparaging remarks and even name-calling—things I would not do when speaking in person. This year, no matter the medium or the distance, I will try to use civil, respectful language.

Second: I will try to think critically.

Do you find it hard to think critically. I do—and no wonder! Just read this definition of critical thinking I found: “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” Why would I want to do that kind of work when my ideas seem so justifiable that they don’t require rational thought? But if I am honest with myself, I realize that I have a lot of visceral reactions that could use some thoughtful attention.

And there is this: something in me wants to seize on information that supports my thinking and not waste time on information that doesn’t support it. Are you ever that way? Fortunately, I am also curious about facts, and I am especially curious how the facts fit the big picture. If I really care about the big picture, I have to give up simplistic generalizations about people and issues. So I will try to favor my curiosity. I will try to learn before I judge—if I judge at all.

Third: I will always remember that the person comes first.

When I am with a person whose views I am sure are wrong, I have the urge to argue them into submission. But this is not a path to anyone’s enlightenment—and it is sure to increase the sense of division between us.

So I will remember that I stand before another human being—the most complex living thing on earth: a person with a hundred pressing needs, with a lifelong collection of hurts and joys, and with a host of unexamined prejudices. I must tell myself this over and over again. That will remind me that this person is mostly made just like me.

If I truly give a person the regard they deserve, being civil and calmly rational will be easier too!

I am sure none of these ways of acting is new to you. They aren’t new to me. But maybe 2017 is an especially good year to put them into practice. If you already work at them, maybe you will join me in making them firm resolutions.

Keeping these three resolutions will probably not be easy. And I suppose that, practiced on our small personal scale, they won’t change the world. But being civil, having a critical mind and respecting every person will certainly elevate the conversation above rancor and maybe even into the realm of useful discourse.

It may even make me a better person in the process.

Here are several other pieces that approach some of the same themes as those in the above article:
Each Human Is Unique: Be Gracious,” a short article
Draw Life’s Circle Wide,” a poem about expanding our thinking
Magical Thinking,” an article about critical thinking
I Love My Opinion,” a short piece on guess what

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