OPINION –A few years ago I was invited to participate in a panel discussion hosted by the Sutherland Institute. The list of panelists was a potentially volatile mix that could have made Jerry Springer think twice.
Imagine a sharp-penned liberal newspaper columnist; two cold-hearted Republican state senators; a highly provocative weekly newspaper publisher; a bleeding heart Democratic state representative; and a mild-mannered talk show host all sitting at the same table.
The potential for serious conflict was undeniable. Notwithstanding the tongue-in-cheek labels I’ve used above, it was actually a very productive and enlightening discussion. So how could so many potential adversaries engage in spirited discourse without devolving into a bloodbath?
The answer is found in a single word: civility.
Following the pointless rancor, fear, and smear tactics of this past election season, there is a clear need for a return to civility. This is true not just in politics, but also in virtually every area of modern life.
Whether it’s the demonizing of those who hold a different point of view or the angry middle finger salute from a passing motorist, rudeness and contempt for one another appear to be on the increase. To understand the deepening coarseness growing amongst us, we must first understand what is meant by civility.
Yale Professor Stephen L. Carter describes civility as more than mere manners and morality, but rather as, “the sum of many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.” He recounts how when travel by train was the norm, it was essential that the tightly packed passengers exercise consideration for their fellow travelers to make a difficult trip more bearable for all.
Carter goes on to liken that experience to the trip we call life and explains how simple consideration for others can make the journey easier for our fellow travelers. He suggests that one way to restore the civility lacking in our culture is to recognize that our duty to be civil to others does not depend on whether we like them or not.
Think about that for a moment. The practice of civility is of no value if we only extend it toward those whom know or of whom we approve. This in no way suggests that we all roll over and fawn over those whose actions or ideas do not meet with our approval.
Instead, Carter explains, civility requires us to listen and respond honestly, and respectfully when differences are encountered. We must first cease to see others as mere objects or adversaries to be vanquished and see them as human beings deserving of the same respect we would expect for ourselves.
Criticism may be warranted, but it can still be civil in tone. Disagreement is sometimes unavoidable, but recognizing the value of another’s point of view in their eyes without resorting to demonizing or belittling goes a long way toward restoring civility. This is what distinguishes us from mere savages who feel the need to lash out violently at those with whom they disagree.
New laws and government programs are not necessary to restore civility to our society. Instead, the primary responsibility for teaching civility falls squarely on the shoulders of the family. The power of example is a significant teaching tool when it comes to instilling young people with the ability to stand for what they believe in without engaging in less than civilized behavior.
One brilliant suggestion for learning to put civility into practice comes from Elizabeth Lesser who suggests that we “take ‘the other’ to lunch.” She advocates taking someone who doesn’t agree with you to lunch and, in her words, “Don’t persuade, defend or interrupt. Be curious, be conversational, be real. And listen.”
When this is done with the intent of understanding what’s really in another’s heart, it becomes much easier to find common ground and to stop demonizing them. There is still a great chance that you will not see eye to eye, but you’ll both come away better informed. How can that be a losing proposition?
Restoring civility only requires that the Golden Rule be put into action. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if Willie and Dorothy are available for lunch.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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