On Civility and Power, Part III
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On Civility and Power, Part III

In exploring the relationship between civility and power, this series has sought to explain why we must reject “winning at all costs,” “ends justifying means,” and “might making right” as norms governing our political (and social) behavior [Part I]. It has sought to make the case for adopting a sincere and serious effort to speak and act civilly and think critically [Part II]. Its main point has been that unless and until we do, we will remain vulnerable to the manipulation of those who whom power is the primary goal.

Can we, as individual citizens, re-establish the basic conditions necessary for civil conversations on important issues affecting our community? Do we want to? Are we willing to do the hard work that is now required?

…anything less than an unqualified, wholehearted “Yes!” is a guarantee that the dangers will multiply.

We are living in an age when, unfortunately, many would answer each of the questions above with a resounding “No!” A sense of powerlessness seems pervasive and the primal “fight or flight” impulse has become a constant—we either lash out at any and all perceived threats (which seem to come from every direction) or we disengage in despair at the seeming futility of it all.

We are living in an age when, unfortunately, this is perfectly understandable. The dangers we face are not illusory. The inclination to treat civility as a relic of a bygone era and to cheer those who “tell it like it is” however rude, disrespectful, or hostile they may be has become a social and political norm. We are like soldiers besieged in trench warfare—convinced we have only two choices: to engage in ruthless, mindless combat or to burrow as deep as we can to escape, even for a moment, the carnage around us.

Understandable though this may be, the reality is that anything less than an unqualified, wholehearted “Yes!” is a guarantee that the dangers will multiply. Without our commitment, the world of civility, civil discourse, and civic engagement–built at great cost and sacrifice over centuries—will fade away (much more quickly than most of us can imagine). We will then find ourselves facing an actual raw struggle for power, not just a conceptual construct describing our conversational behavior. We are, in fact, witnessing this take place, and much more rapidly than most of us had thought possible even just a few years ago.

Our Choice

As individual citizens we can re-establish the basic conditions for civil conversations on important issues affecting our community. This is the one area in which we, as individuals, have complete dominion: we can, individually, decide whether we are going to be civil or uncivil, whether we are going to treat our fellow citizens and the alternative views they hold with respect, or dismiss and ridicule them. We can insist that in our political discussions we are fully committed to showing respect for and to each other.

We must also sincerely, conscientiously want to do what’s required to reclaim the power over our own conversations. The truth is that when we don’t, we’re ceding the only real power we have to affect political discourse and the subsequent impact that even the tone and tenor, let alone the substance, of such discourse has on our community, our society, our nation.

The most crucial question, though, is whether we’re willing to do the hard work that is now required to restore civility to our political discourse. The very first challenging task is, essentially, crawling out of the trench. It’s recognizing that we each have the ability to reframe how we view political discussion, how we engage in such discourse. We have to see ourselves not as besieged combatants, as helpless victims trapped by our particular time and circumstance, but as people who can choose to break free of that mindset and do so by reclaiming their ability to think for themselves, to think critically as individuals.

Once we make that choice, the next challenge lies in developing the skills, the traits of mind, the attitudes, and the behaviors that characterize those who do, indeed, think for themselves—who are critical thinkers. In many respects this is an even more daunting task because it requires a serious commitment of time and effort. It takes practice. Yet for most of us, time is precious, effort is devoted to other, just as crucial, aspects of our lives—work, family, school. Building our capacity to think critically is also not something we can do in isolation; it requires interacting with those who have different views, different experiences, different backgrounds.   The opportunities for such interaction, however, are rare these days and creating them is particularly difficult given the rising levels of distrust, impatience, frustration, and outrage that seem to dominate any forum for discussion.

What to do?

Some key practical actions we can take:

  • Recognize that the restoration of civility in our political discourse is essential to our future as an organized, functioning, peaceful, community, nation, society—and that without it each of us, individually, will pay an increasingly higher price.
  • Make the time, devote the effort, commit to honing the skills, the attitudes, the mindset necessary to engage in civil discourse.
  • Create—and join—discussion groups whose goal is to apply critical thinking to the issues and problems we face, and whose approach is therefore grounded in mutual respect.

When it comes to the issue of power and civility, the choice is between remaining in “trench warfare” mode with its inescapable and inevitable destructive consequences, or recognizing that we are better than that. We can add to the divisiveness by fighting to “win” regardless of the consequences, or we can create the conditions that restore civility to our political discourse.

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