Linda is retiring at the end of this year and this will be her last regular monthly Getting Along column.
We’re hearing a lot recently about the need for increased civility. And what’s not to like about that? When people communicate politely, it may be less likely to make us uncomfortable, so it may be easier for us to listen. When we’re calm, it’s easier for us to access the parts of our brain that help us think more clearly. Civility implies mutual respect.
But, unfortunately, calls for civility are too often a way to stifle dissent. Whether intentionally or not, they usually support the way things currently are. Someone harshly disagreeing with us creates a tension that tends to make us uncomfortable. We don’t like to be uncomfortable, so we look to calm down the agitator, ask them to be nice. This shifts the focus from what they are saying to how they are saying it, and the force of the opposing view is blunted.
So here we are, in the midst of the winter holiday season, with family and acquaintances gathering for parties and meals. Strong opinions will undoubtedly be expressed. It is an excellent time to watch the role of pleas for civility in how we interact.
For example, maybe we’re at a family gathering and we’ve had as much of listening to Cousin Carol’s quietly provocative pronouncements as we can handle. If we can manage to respond in a measured way, great! We may have an interesting discussion or at least get her to stop playing the goading game. If not, if we respond angrily or even just passionately, we will likely be blamed for the tensions that have suddenly been exposed. We are told to be civil and the validity of our response is lost in the blame.
Civility can also be used as a veneer to excuse bad behavior. We might talk ourselves out of the seriousness of threats or insults when they are presented politely. Surely, we say, they don’t really mean it the way it sounds because they said it so nicely.
It’s okay to point out lop-sided calls for civility. Civility must be mutual; respect must go both ways. One thing we see a lot in the news is for speakers to bait a group, and then yell for that group to be civil when its respond passionately or angrily. This is like the child who taunts a sibling, only to run to the parent crying when the sibling reacts. Provoking the reaction, which will then be punished, is the point.
What about our own inclinations to demand others speak to us nicely? For those of us who are white, for example, it can be extremely uncomfortable to hear the anger in the voices of people of color. Calling on those whose voices have historically been sidelined to only communicate politely is asking a lot. It is demanding courtesy from those who have not been treated courteously. All of us tend to raise our voices when we’re not feeling heard. Sometimes the only way to express the strength of our disagreement is with raised voices.
Of course, another thing that can be lost in appeals for civility is that not all raised voices are equivalent. Our shrill Uncle Henry’s loudly expressed view that all lawyers should be killed is certainly not just as valid as the wide variety of opinions on how to make the legal system more fair. We don’t need to listen politely as he goes on and on. Not all views are life-affirming or must be treated as acceptable, just because someone expresses them.
Communicating with one another effectively is hard, complicated work. The answers aren’t always easily found or implemented. We live in a large country with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Getting along calls on us to be strong enough to listen to what others are saying, even if they’re yelling. We can develop the courage to welcome seeing something in a new way, which is necessary for us to become more civilized.
May you have a wonderful, challenging, and loving winter holiday season!