There has been a lot of talk lately about civility. Unfortunately this discourse has been born out of the awful shooting in Tucson last week. I wish this discourse had existed on its own merits, rather than as a reactive dialogue to a terrible, highly publicized event. I’m not going to write about the shooting–it has received plenty of coverage lately. I would like to address the perceived weakness in kindness. My opinion: there isn’t one (unless you are someone’s door mat, in which case you should seek help to avoid being a people-pleaser).
This topic first became of interest to me after a conversation I had with a coworker a few months ago. This person is someone who is friendly and upbeat, but without a moment’s notice will turn on you and take you by the emotional jugular. In short, just when you think you are getting along with this person, “Sam” (I’m being anonymous here with a gender neutral name) will criticize or insult you seemingly without cause. Not exactly the type of person with which I enjoy working!
On one of our “good” days, we were exchanging an email and “Sam” wrote, “I like to be nice to people, but if I’m too nice, people are gonna think I’m weak.” It made so much sense–so this is why “Sam” is so defensive out of nowhere! I get it–don’t let anyone have the upper hand. Push them away when they get too close and show them who is boss. I just don’t agree with it.
I was saddened when I realized just how many people believe that being “nice” is a way of showing weakness. It is a lot of people. Evidence is all around us demonstrating how being civil in the face of adversity is a fading trend. Today we sue others for speaking rudely, we bully one another for being different and publicize it all over the internet. And for some reason we think that makes us look “strong” and “successful.” TV depicts reality show subjects erupting into fights with one another over frivolous yet dramatic issues; news programs are littered with pundits who use terms like “Nazi” or “terrorist” to describe people who don’t come anywhere near to those insults; our legislature is loaded with impassioned politicians who would rather argue and make fools of each other rather than compromise and make progress. When did we forget to talk things out? When did considering what it’s like to be “in their shoes” fly out the window? How did we forget the importance of maintaining personal integrity by showing compassion, forgiveness, and collaboration?
At the same time, it is immensely encouraging that there is still a desire in every one of us to “get along,” which has been widely exhibited across the country this last week by individuals, by President Obama’s speech in Tucson, and from commentators and writers. I have also found this to be true based on my daily experiences resulting from the Be Nice. project. Let us not forget the actions of philanthropists, activists, and volunteers. Every day those people show healthy ways to direct their passion into constructive activities which wholeheartedly aim to improve the lives of others.
There is tremendous strength in talking through problems–to constantly seek understanding even in the face of insurmountable odds (which might include dealing with an unwilling adversary). The civil, kind, and respectful person is of strong character because they are inclined to compromise with their opponent (even if it is a resolution to live in mutual tolerance of opposing viewpoints).
Often the kind and civil person will put their objector at unease. The other may think, “What are they trying to get away with? What is their agenda? They are so fake.” Often the other may mistrust the very genuine kindness you seek to display. This mistrust is not anyone’s failing. It is a result of conditioned behavior. Be patient, be tolerant, and eventually this suspicion may subside. Until then, hold steadfastly your convictions while also being simultaneously open to growth and widening your perspective (your opponent might have a valid point on which you both could find common ground). In politics and in life, being willing to consider the validity of opposing views shows incredible maturity and wisdom, and may result in an expanded outlook for both parties.
Remember too that while free speech in our country gives us all the privilege to speak our minds openly–however hurtful it is to others–we have to choose to communicate them civilly. I hope we all find the inner determination to do so.
President John F. Kennedy once said: “So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Such perfect words for this time in history.