Rainy Day Writing

Writing, Reading, Inspirations and Aspirations

Civil Discourse with Demons

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Photo: Ilona Elliott

Civil discourse. It’s a process that is sorely lacking in the public arena these days. It’s definitely gotten popular to demonize the “other”, the person who believes in a different path or a has a different set of values than we have or lives in a different neighborhood or looks different than us. Demonizing the opposition has become the political tool of choice also, it seems, and I don’t like it. The otherness factor is stifling our democracy and frustrating efforts to solve the great social problems of our time. It has become a social problem. And a political one. Do you agree?

It seems especially easy, as we immerse ourselves in social media, where the other can become nothing more than a few lines of text on a page, to behave badly. They aren’t really a person, just an idea. An idea that inflames something in you. And the comments section becomes the place where you choose to annihilate them.

Before you know it, you have forgotten entirely that there is a real person behind those lines of text. There is a living, breathing person at the keyboard, who has a life that may be not unlike your own. They have family, friends, responsibilities and feelings. They are most likely doing the best they can. They are struggling too. Their struggle may not be the mirror image of yours, but it is no less a struggle than your own. It may indeed be a greater one. There’s a reason why they believe what they believe, and they are trying to articulate their very real feelings about something, and all you can think about is how stupid they are, or dangerous, or un-Godly, or whatever, you fill in the blanks. Of course, if you’re just an internet troll waiting under the bridge with your club for someone to smash over the head, you don’t care much about feelings or respect or constructive action and so this message isn’t meant for you. But for the rest of us, sometimes a pause and a softer response, a nudge to the conscience, or an important fact or aspect of an issue that may have been over-looked, can result in a much more satisfying discourse. Or do what I do, don’t respond at all. It’s the WWTD (What Would Thumper Do) response–if you can’t say anything nice, (or civil), don’t say anything at all.

The interesting thing about all this incivility, especially on the internet, is that real life models exist to illustrate that putting people together, physically, to solve a problem, even people with very different views, can create a loosening of the tensions that separate, the tensions that promote otherness rather than togetherness. Suddenly, the other and you are forced to work together, and you see that they are a real person, not the demonized persona your rage and scorn made them into in your mind. (I’m not quite sure what’s going on in Congress, maybe you can tell me).

But if you surround yourself with only people who think like you think, live like you live, and believe what you believe, and “un-friend” everyone else, it’s easy to become so entrenched in your own ideology that you lose sight of the important thing about being a human. We are in this together. We work better as a unit than as individuals. And like the scriptures teach, there are many members, but one body. Everyone has something to contribute. Clearly, the most successful human endeavors are the ones in which people work together in close cooperation and with constructive collaboration. People really do flourish in environments of respect and civility. Think about your favorite teachers, the ones who inspired you, (hopefully you can remember some), and you will realize the importance of civility in our dealings with others. No one is asking you to give up your beliefs or values. That is what makes you…you. Just like the other person, their beliefs and values, which they express in words–those lines of text, are what makes them who they are. You don’t have to change who you are to show a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, is all I’m saying.

So maybe you can try this, the next time you want to tear someone apart with words: imagine the person behind the words. Look at their profile photo if you must. imagine them in the room with you, speaking one on one, instead of three thousand miles away in a town you know nothing about, living a life you can’t even begin to understand. Get in touch with the human being behind their words and the one behind your response. It can be very instructive to ask yourself why you are so upset about a particular post. And why not try to befriend this other, this person who challenges your beliefs. Preposterous, I know, but you just might find your presumptions about others breaking down, and you might actually enjoy getting to know them. Like the Jack Nicholson character in As Good As it Gets, it might even be fun.

Sometimes I debate political ideology with people I know who have very different views about things than I do. I guess I’m weird, but I enjoy the process. I almost always learn something interesting about them, even if it’s just that” Hey, they like Frank Zappa too!”  And while we generally don’t change one another’s minds or politics, I know that my attitude can be changed by these exchanges. I know that they are human and so am I, and were all just trying to do what’s right.

I have a rule though, I never let these exchanges degrade into insults, curses, or personal assaults. I have no desire to cut that other person up or show them or anyone else how cleverly I can destroy their argument. That is not my motivation for debate. On-line or in person. It’s not productive. It’s not respectful. And it’s not the way grown ups should act.

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