Resuscitating civil discourse from its deathbed

It’s a dark title for a post, I know. But I do believe that it’s where we’ve come to: civil discourse is DOA. I think it was on life support for many years, but this election and its aftermath have effectively killed it, with little hope of resuscitation in the near future.

Prior to the election, I tried hard to engage those who saw the world differently than I did in a diplomatic way, to try to find the common ground between us however I could, and I was relatively successful. That changed after this election. I’ve noted before that the election of Donald Trump was a game changer, and it is because of his basic lack of moral decency. It has made it much more difficult for me to engage anyone who supported him without a sense of anger and disgust on my part. It has made for some contentious exchanges, which I believe that I am partially responsible for. Those that I have argued with are aware of my feelings, and they often respond with the best method of defense: attack. I’ve been called all the names in the book: libtard, crybaby, snowflake, crazy bitch, to name a few. I’ve tried to avoid retorting with the left’s response of: racist, white supremacist, misogynist, xenophobe, because I think that those actually hurt a lot more, as they are a condemnation of character. I’ve come to a place where I can perhaps understand what might have led someone to vote for Trump: economic concerns, belief in limited government, religious beliefs, to name a few. What I can’t wrap my brain around is how voters could connect any of these values to a man like Donald Trump, who espouses none of them, and foments a faux-populist nationalism that our nation has not seen in decades. It is a dangerous combination, and it confounds me that people that I know can’t or won’t recognize this. It has led me down the rabbit hole of social media arguments, and the subsequent ending of friendships (mostly acquaintances) over politics.

The conventional “wisdom” in America is that this is why we shouldn’t talk about issues like religion or politics; that they’re too divisive and best left undiscussed. But I disagree; it’s not the issues that are the problem, the problem is that we have not been taught in our schools, our homes, our communities, to have a productive civil disagreement. This is a uniquely American problem; Europeans frequently engage in these types of discussions at the dinner table, in the cafes, in their schools. Why are we lacking this very important skill?

I believe that part of it is that Americans have been taught that the point of discussion and debate is to “win” the argument. It’s not; the point is to listen, and to offer your thoughts. Perhaps no one will change their mind, perhaps no one will emerge victorious, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthwhile endeavor. When I’ve had these discussions with even the most conservative friends, who see the world far differently than I do, we’ve found common ground, because we’ve listened and responded with civility. There are ways to meet in the middle on specific issues, or even portions of issues, if we are willing to stop, listen, hold our tongues as we hear things that run counter to our beliefs, take a deep breath, and then respond. But this is not what we are taught in our society, and I believe that the candidacy and election of Donald Trump is a symptom of this lack of civic education and practice in America.

I do think that as long as our basic democratic principles are under threat (as I believe they are right now), civil discourse will be incredibly difficult, and will take extraordinary patience and willpower on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum. It may not happen right now. But we can, and should, resuscitate it in the next generation, in the way we teach our children to engage. We can reintroduce civics as a part of our school curriculum; we can choose to practice talking about these topics in our homes at our kitchen tables, so that our children don’t fear disagreement. We have to plant this seed in the next generation, if there is hope for change. To quote Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax”, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” So let us fight like hell against what we don’t believe represents our American values. But let us do it with civility.

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