Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Civil liberties or taking liberties with civility

You'll all be pleased to know I've been thinking about being civil lately. It is the height of election season, after all. And I've noted that folks are discussing politics and how uncivil our discourse about same has become. Some friends on Facebook are unfriending people who talk too much politics--particularly if they are the wrong politics, but sometimes any heated rhetoric will do to send the offenders packing.

I think the lack of civility in this realm is overblown. You don't have to look at much political history, whether in the United States, Europe, or the Byzantine Empire, to immediately grasp that civility has rarely been an important value to politicians or rulers. 

Nor do We, The People, be we voters or the merely ruled, seem to have spent much time throughout history politely and respectfully discussing our differences. Different opinions regarding governance or religion or economics throughout history tended to be resolved by some form of verbal or literal fisticuffs. 

At the same time, as I discussed last month I've spent a lot of time over the years preaching to my kids the importance of civil discourse if you actually want to communicate, which usually means you want your thoughts and words to be heard and understood. 

Like when you tell me that my opinion is really stupid and then proceed to tell me why your opinion is NOT really stupid, that doesn't exactly move me to listen to your opinion with an open mind and heart. In fact, it might predispose me to think your opinion is, um, stupid. 

Relatedly, while traveling in Minnesota this weekend, I listened to a rebroadcast of "On Being." For the uninitiated, "On Being" is a weekly show on NPR, billed as focusing on religion, meaning, ethics and ideas. 

This week's show was part of a series that Krista Tippett has been doing for the past year or so, the Civil Conversations Project, the idea that supporting intentional discourse between people who really want to build bridges between the polarized edges of issues can bring people together and create change. 

It was a fabulous hour of real conversation and movement on the definition of marriage primarily between two people who had held diametrically opposed viewpoints yet who have come to some points of agreement, with mutually respectful rhetoric.

Made me feel all warm and fuzzy about the future of humanity. Yes, it did. Truly. And I can absolutely see how this type of conversation is what we need in our increasingly polarized society. Is probably the only way we can move forward on issues of great conflict.

Do you feel the but coming?

Because it is coming. And it is an embarrassing but. 

Sometimes I really love--crave, even--reading (and sometimes viewing) obnoxious and uncivil rhetoric regarding subjects about which I care deeply. Why is this? 

Let's dispense with the obvious first: I am an immature twit incapable of having respectful and meaningful conversation about important issues. Point scored.

But wait, there's more here, I think. There is a bonding aspect to uncivil discourse. So often we/I feel alienated from others, listening to so many opinions that are so far from mine. When someone comes along with crazy rhetoric from my side of the planet (newsflash: I'm a Liberal with an annoyingly capital L) I feel included. I've been invited to the party. And I like that feeling.

Also, sometimes incivility can be really, really funny. Sometimes mean-funny, which makes me uncomfortable. Good girls aren't mean-funny. And good people don't want to hurt others for the sake of a laugh or two. But sometimes simply funny-funny incivility maybe could be ok? 

Because the more I age, the more I like, appreciate and desperately need funny-funny. I am always too serious. Anxiety sucks the funny-funny out of life. And so I am, of late, constantly on a serious hunt for humor of all kinds. And obnoxiously liberal rhetoric--or paradoxically slamming conservative rhetoric--can fit that bill.

Finally, I think that in this 24/7 media news cycle world, even issues of the utmost importance can become, well, boring. How many different ways can the economic crisis in Greece be discussed before the mere mention of same will put me to sleep within seconds? And the never-ending post-debate deconstructions? Oh. My. Gosh. 

But throw some annoying rhetoric in that bland retread of a soup and, viola, you've spiced up the story, regaining my interest. 

The problem with my spice of choice is that I'm afraid of what it leads to. That same bonding aspect to shared uncivil opinions has an equal, but opposite, alienating effect on the other end of the spectrum. Those of us at the ends of the spectrum become polarized, eventually pushing away from each other, repelled. 

Not sure I have the science right, but you know what I mean, yes?!

And it doesn't seem like that's such a great way to create a good working society in a world where we don't live in neighborhoods segregated by political party--and we don't want to! 

I don't have a snappy ending to this ramble, no current plan to save the world from its madness. Not even a plan for how I'm going to behave during these last two weeks of the presidential campaign. Maybe I'll try to use the spices of my choice on my meals, only, and leave the rest of you to choose your preferred flavor of political rhetoric. :-)


Blogger Sue Ann Kendall said...

I recently read a book I liked, called The Righteous Mind. It talked about why people form these camps and think anyone in the other camp is "an idiot." The author made the point that there is a consistent world view on each side (right, left, Christian, atheist, whatever)but that what matters more to most people is that putting down the "other" helps them build ties to their own social group. And being a member of a "tribe" has been helpful to humans throughout their evolution. We are programmed to do the "us vs. them" thing. After reading this book, I understand why I enjoy the "in-group" trash talking from time to time, and am not so hard on myself about it. Yet, I do love me some civil discourse. By granting that the other side might well make sense from their point of view, you open yourself up to learning something, even if you don't change your "tribal affiliation."

3:32 PM  

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