Civil Discourse

by Tina Oddleifson ’82

I’m related to the first person executed for murder in the U.S. You may not have heard of him, but his name was John Billington and he came over on the Mayflower.  He was a troublemaker who killed a fellow colonist and was hanged in 1630.  My grandmother bravely fought for access to birth control in the 1930’s, despite the social stigma. But she also once told me that she thought Apartheid wasn’t so bad.  My hometown of Boston is often the first to stand up for higher American ideals like equality.  But it also has a long and complicated history of racism. I could tell you that I’m a Mayflower descendant, that my grandmother crusaded for progressive causes, and that Boston is a leader for enlightened thought in America.  But that wouldn’t be the whole truth, would it?

As humans, we tend to hold onto certain parts of our story and ignore or gloss over the messy parts because they don’t support our idealized version of reality.  This has become an alarming practice in today’s political environment where partial truths and absolutes are ubiquitous, often in the form of memes and sensational headlines addressing the outrage of the day.  “Liberals want to take down the flag – share if you don’t give a damn” or “Conservatives are literally pining for a dictatorship” are two that came through my feed recently.  One of these is bound to irritate you, maybe even both.

Our obsession with sound bites, memes and partial truths may serve our need for self-justification and help us commiserate with our political team, but they not only promote divisiveness, they miss the chance for exploring a much more fascinating and complex story.  The recent cultural conflicts over civil war memorials and kneeling during the national anthem are just two more examples of how our social media obsession is drowning out civil discourse and the opportunity to explore those gray areas, where the truth actually lives.

So where does one go to have an honest and respectful conversation these days?  How do we move forward as a country teetering on the edge of a democracy and something altogether different?  Admitting that your life story or point of view is filled with a certain degree of hypocrisy is a good place to start.  Having a murderous Pilgrim, a feminist but prejudiced grannie, and a hypocritical hometown forces you to admit that maybe things are a little more complicated than they appear. Recognizing your own inconsistencies can help others admit theirs as well. The next step is to find someone who thinks differently than you and actively listen to them.  This is not the kind of listening where you spend your time figuring out your next counterpoint while someone else is talking.  It’s about being curious and asking questions.  It’s about making the other person feel “heard,” even if you don’t agree with what they are saying.  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 that we can engage in the healthy deliberation of ideas that a successful democracy requires.

If you’re wondering how someone you have always liked can have such a different worldview, maybe it’s time to reach out and ask them how they got there.  And maybe it’s time for all of us to admit that not all conservatives are racist, not all liberals believe in unlimited government handouts, and we all love our country.  It would open up a desperately needed conversation for addressing urgent policy issues from sensible gun laws, to health care and immigration.

If you are interested in learning more about ways to advance civil discourse, the National Institute for Civil Discourse has launched the Revive Civility project in Maine, Ohio, Iowa and Arizona with plans to go nationwide.  They offer resources for talking to friends and family about issues that divide us, including a new program called “Setting the Table for Civility” with tools for families and friends to have civil conversations over the Thanksgiving holiday.  You can find them at ReviveCivility.org.  Additional resources to explore include Allsides.com  and Livingroomconversations.org.  If we begin to model civil discourse, maybe our politicians will too.

Note: This op-ed was originally published by Portland Press Herald on October 16, 2017.

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