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The A-B-C’s of Civility

We talk a lot about civility here at Coffee Party USA. And we get a lot of push back.

Coffee Party and several of our partners work hard to demonstrate and facilitate respectful engagement in this divisive political and cultural climate. We have our work cut out for us because across the spectrum, from left to right, an awful lot of people just do not want to be civil; I think too many people just want to win.

We are not the only ones working on this effort for civility. Do you know Krista Tippitt, the bright, engaging host of the On Being project and radio show? She talked about the concept of civility in a recent interview and along the way, she quoted Arlie Hochschild: “Caring is not the same as capitulating.”

You can actually really care and truly muster some curiosity, really want to understand where [the other person is] coming from and really desire to find the complexity in their position, even if you continue to disagree with it. … You bring your passion with you, but that doesn’t have to be at odds with meeting the passion of another human being.

I really think what civility means to me, what civility needs to become for us to walk together — because we do share a life, whether we like each other or not — I think civility…is about being willing to be present, one human being to another. All those issues and differences can be in the room, but they don’t define what is possible between us.

I like this. I have dear friends and family who think very differently than I do about politics. I disagree strongly with some of their positions, but I refuse to ever let those opinions obscure their humanity and damage our relationship.

Tippett talks about how an attitude of civility is “internal work.”

I think an intention to be civil adventurously in the first instance would be to try to be very self-aware, to want to bring your own best self into that room and to figure out what that means.

As I understand how the world works, I am only responsible for myself. The only person in the world I can ever hope to change is me. And so an attitude and intention of civility falls squarely on my shoulders. Even when a conversation goes awry, I’m still in charge of myself: my attitude and my words. Even when we disagree on an issue, I can still respect the dark and light complexity of my fellow human beings – especially when I admit the messy contradiction that is me.

Ms. Tippett reminds us that a person is not the same as their position. She cautions us not to lose sight of their humanity by lumping them into a category: “the other side.”

Instead:

… open yourself to let them surprise you, to let them not be quite as simple or as evil as they may have become in your mind, which is not to say that you expect them to be any different on the positions but that you are going to call yourself to be a full human being, and you’re going to be open to them being a full human being. And that will mean that you understand you bring contradiction to this, and they bring contradiction to this. That can be an opening to be standing on some common ground as human beings, even if you’re not standing on common ground with your opinions.

Call yourself to be a full human being.
Be open to them being a full human being.

Yes!

This!

It sounds pretty simple.

But it’s a lifetime effort.

 

One of the complaints I hear (especially these days from my friends on the left) is that being civil is a weakness. “Civility” is used as a synonym for “tame or timid” but I think this is a misuse of the concept.

Ms. Tippett thinks so too.

My concern for a while has been that the word is too meek, that it’s about being nice and tame and safe. And I don’t think stepping into any of the dark places and the fraught places right now can be nice or tame or safe. I always reach for other words to attach, like “muscular.” It has to be muscular; it has to be robust — this language we use in the Grounding Virtues, “adventurous civility.” It needs to be an adventure.

This is good vocabulary for our day: attaching a strong adjective to the word “civility.”

  • Audacious civility.
  • Bold civility.
  • Courageous civility.

The A-B-C’s of civility.

This reminds us that civility is not a namby-pamby, spineless effort.

Rather civility is steely intention and muscular action.

Coffee Party USA sponsors a Facebook page followed by over a million people. The vast majority of these readers haven’t signed on to our Coffee Party values and many will argue against our insistence that comments must be civil. We have very strong filters that automatically hide profanity and many personal insults. It’s a good thing we do; anonymous internet conversations are especially infamous for incivility.

Sometimes a comment like this will come through:

The %^&* Orange *&%# lies every time he opens his *&%# mouth.

Note: this comment will be hidden by our filters because it is profane, insulting and uncivil. (Not to mention, very childish.) This approach does nothing to foster discourse across our differences.

Now consider this:

Way too often, President Trump does not tell the truth

and he uses lies to deceive and divide us

Note: this comment is clear, bold, documentable and civil. I can (and do) say something like this in internet conversations as well as face to face to people I care about. This is adult conversation.

At Coffee Party USA, we want people to feel free to engage in muscular dialogue about the issues; to disagree and explore their differences; to confront false information and counter it with facts. But we also want our readers to keep an open mind, to be curious about those differences of opinion and to avoid conflating a person with their particular position.

It’s hard work. But it is our Coffee Party Way and we remain committed to reach for constructive collaboration across our differences, to disagree agreeably and to respect each other’s humanity. Coffee Party’s belief in audacious civility may be out of step with society today, but we will continue to plant seeds for tomorrow.

 

Whenever I think of bold civility, I think of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. These are people who show me again and again how to speak clearly and fearlessly into the public conversation. To tell the truth but to do it in such a way that maintains integrity. This kind of attitude and action is what inspires me to keep on reaching for civil, respectful connection with my fellow human beings.

I like this entire interview with Krista Tippett but this one phrase stands out: “All the issues and differences can be in the room, but they don’t define what is possible between us.”

I hope I will always challenge my own thinking, grow in my awareness and be willing to change my opinions. I hope I will never be afraid to honestly engage the issues and differences with people.

Adventurous, bold, courageous civility allows me to do that: engage differences with confident humility and infinite hope for “what is possible between us.”

 

Find the full interview here at the On Being website.

 

Charlotte Coyle serves on the Coffee Party USA Board of Directors. She also blogs about the intersections of faith, politics and culture at her website and on her Intersections Facebook page.

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