Civility has recently been getting kind of a bad rap. No matter what your political beliefs are, most people would agree that the current president has a rhetorical style that could generously be called anti-civil. Some would even say divisive. Characterizing those who dissent as enemies and providing creative nicknames for those who disagree aren’t the ingredients of a healthy conversation. Resisting the urge to counterpunch, however, is necessary for addressing the underlying causes of our country’s divisions.
Supporters of our current president have recently decried the most vocal voices of the resistance as being beyond the pale and called for more civil discourse… all while accepting divisiveness from the commander-in-chief. On the left, this has led to a “by-any-means-necessary” approach to resisting the current administration.
Civility and the way we talk to one another is being weaponized in the age of Trump.
Recently I’ve started listening to a podcast by Dylan Marron called “Conversations With People Who Hate Me”. Earlier this year, Dylan’s TED Talk discussed his interactions with the type of negative online comments that led to the concept for the podcast. The podcast seeks to engage those who use the pseudo-anonymity of the Internet to leave hateful and potentially destructive comments, and then talks about the issues that led to those comments. Many times, the negative posters choose not to engage further but, occasionally, a conversation begins. That’s where the magic happens.
For many, their beliefs stem from very real life situations. Their worldview, no matter how antithetical to my own, originated from life experiences that fostered these views. As a listener to the podcast, I’m a fly on the wall in this conversation. I find myself internally raging at the homophobic, racist, or intolerant philosophy being discussed but, through it all, I hear the person and the life events that led him or her down the path divergent from my own.
In a country where diversity is encouraged, recognizing the humanity of those you disagree with is the key to societal healing.
One of the core pillars of the American experiment is encouraging diversity of thought. This is enshrined in our First Amendment.The drawback is that the philosophies I find inimical are afforded the same freedoms as those with which I find rapport. Equal freedom doesn’t, by any means, imply equivalence among beliefs… only that they are equally protected. In order to craft an America we are proud of, we must continue to fight against philosophies of intolerance and disenfranchisement that degrade the American ideal. But meeting this with intolerance does not help win the war.
Fight the philosophy, not the people.
Taking the battle to the believers actually empowers their philosophy. Beliefs like white nationalism thrive on a narrative that a war is being waged on their culture. Outrage against the proponents only strengthens that narrative. Further, social reprisal is not enough to quell a movement. There was much violence brought to those at Selma and Stonewall which did little to quiet the civil rights movement that continues to this day. Punching Nazis today does little but intensify their belief that they are the ones under siege and motivate them to keep fighting.
I understand that in advocating civility I speak from a position of privilege. There are many who have been marginalized by society for so long that they have no empathy to give to their oppressors, and pain from such conversations can be too much to bear. I’m not here to preach that the only way to resist is through civil conversation, but I fear that by focusing on carving up ideologies, we are losing a powerful tool in breaking down the divides and finding common ground.
When we’re fighting, we stop listening. When we listen, we can understand the motivations that cause people to adopt a toxic philosophy. Only then can we address the destructive ideology itself. Understanding and empathy are not synonyms for normalization and acceptance — we can both listen and #resist. In fact, we can most effectively defeat divisions by breaking down the wall between “us” and “them”.
The antidote to divisiveness is communication, conversation, and civility.
Werner Hager is a scientist, author, and a volunteer and board member of Coffee Party USA. As a mentor for high school robotics students, he is actively building a new generations of engaged, thoughtful, and passionate members of the body politic.