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Civility

The Road to Resilience

Many of us like to think that Trump is the ogre that crashed our party.  He is but the fruit of a long period of division and bitter strife in our country.  Just the same, Trump’s behavior is aiding and abetting that behavior in a powerful way.  I don’t think any parent, conservative or liberal, would tolerate such behavior in their children, so what do you tell them when it seems okay for the President to act that way?  His example is harmful and contagious and we have to denounce it as outside the realm of acceptable behavior.  

In an era of upheaval and uncertainty, we need to move forward cautiously, but expeditiously and imaginatively at the same time.  If you have a hard time grocking that, then welcome to the club.  Two presentations given in the last two weeks shed some light on the landscape we find ourselves in.  

Riki Ott’s presentation on Ultimate Civics described the highly contested evolution of democracy in the US, from the writing of the Constitution forward.  For a government “of, by, and for the people,” the answer to the question that has passionately been contested has been, “Who are the People?”  For the framers, it was wealthy, white men.  It was nearly a hundred years before all men could vote regardless of race or wealth, and a hundred and fifty years before any women were included.  Ironically, corporations were recognized as having rights before women were.  Although there has been a steady expansion of the recognition of rights to the whole body of real persons, the battle for control of the country has been between real persons and corporations.  From the very beginning, corporations—that is, the people running them—have taken every opportunity to leverage their power and influence to create a legal structure and a consumer culture that would eventually make them the most powerful entity in the world today.

We are all directly or indirectly complicit in the creation of this world.  We like the stuff that corporations have provided, but now the world is burning up and we’re beginning to see that the powers we have allowed to concentrate in corporations are not so easily taken back.  We’ve been hooked on their stuff for a long time, and we can no longer negotiate prices when our suppliers know that we intend to have the stuff at any price.  Of course, you understand that that price is not merely economic, but political, physical, social, and spiritual.  The world we know is about to disappear and the liberty we fought so hard for over the years is disappearing as well.  That is the substance of the landscape we find ourselves in.

The second talk, by David Smith, philosopher and UW professor, was all about how to personally and collectively wend our way through the process of deciding what our future should be with a minimum of strife, not to mention death and destruction.  He delivers seminars on Beliefs and Ethics and empowers people to think for themselves about things that matter.  

For me, the core of Smith’s talk revolved around civility, i.e., treating others with respect and dignity.  The reason this resonated so strongly with me is because of the marked lack of civility in our country today. Now that our “Example-in-Chief” has set the bar so low, half of us are horrified and the other half are taking it as license to hate, maim, and slander at will.  The veneer of civilization is very thin, and those susceptible to losing it are both conservative and liberal.  We should all think about what is said when we are amongst friends and family who think as we do.

According to Smith, the causes of incivility are human bias, fear, close-mindedness, lack of affirmation, uncertainty, and other human limitations.  We have more than enough of all of those.  Civility implies tolerance.  Tolerance requires that we understand that what we “know” is just the best that we can ascertain at the present time.  Even science disproves itself once in a while. That behooves us to listen well and more often and to remain open-minded.  

At the same time, Smith cautioned, we must understand that virtues are pretty consistent among all humans, and there are some behaviors, i.e., those that violate and harm others, that are not to be tolerated under any circumstances.  Understanding the difference between those is a beginning of wisdom.

Smith’s recipe for civility is as follows:
Intentionality – intend to be civil, to practice the virtues, i.e. humility, honesty, kindness, tolerance.
Commonality – continually remind yourself that we are all humans with the same needs, desires, and ambitions.
Communication – speak and listen carefully, affirm another’s opinion on something when you agree, no matter how insignificant it is compared to what you disagree on.  By affirming, you are recognizing their humanity, respecting their intelligence, and creating the basis for trust.

Riki Ott has laid out the task ahead of us and David Smith has given us guidelines to maintain civility.  I will once again put out the invitation to those that want to begin to bridge the gap to contact me.  I’m especially looking for conservatives, although I don’t suppose many read my column.  As Bob Dylan said, “[So] Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late….”

Comments and replies: terry@vashonloop.com