5 Ways to Be Civil – Iowa style

My mom-in-law is always looking out for articles I might like; ones on art, my alma mater, and civility are regularly arriving in my mailbox. It’s pretty great having people out there finding good material for me on days where I have so much to do, writing a blog post is one of the last things on my list! So, thanks Denise!

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Here is an article from an Iowa newspaper on civility. Don’t strain your eyes–after the first image I have a close up of the text below it!

Sent via snail mail from my awesome "mil" Denise

And now for its close-up….

 

Five useful ideas for civility

 

All really great points. I couldn’t have said it better myself! Have a terrific week!

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Feeling a little heated–the debate, I mean

It doesn't really relate, but isn't this the best picture, ever?! Source: http://forums.colbertnation.com/?page=ThreadView&thread_id=5788

Phew! Politics. Goodness! Is it ever NOT a heated debate about something? Not really. This morning, when I groggily popped onto Facebook, I found my friend had posted a link to an article detailing the latest update on the activities of the US House of Representatives. Anymore, politics are a hot topic for an online debate which can get downright ugly, and often these exchanges become pointless in the end.

(Imagine something like this: “I will yell to prove my point.”…. “NO YOU WON’T! I will yell even louder to prove my point and not concede or find common ground!”…. “Well, I’ll just be extreme to prove my point and do it so loudly you are drowned out!”.. . and so on. You get the idea….)

Because I don’t want to get into a debate here which would detract from the point, I am not going to tell you what the posted article was about. But I will tell you how the responses to my friend’s post went (totally paraphrasing here), with my little “I couldn’t resist! I had to weigh in!” reply at the end including my strategy to diffuse the argument into something effective and constructive. (Note: everything is written in first person, so follow the indents and colors.)

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  • THIS SUCKS! WHAT A BUNCH OF BALONEY! The “issue at hand” is important for America! Why is it being attacked? It is so much more than the Congress’s simplified notion of being related to the “bigger issue!” GRRR!
    • I have no sympathy for you because I’m on the other side of the “bigger issue” and I blame the “issue at hand” for much of it.
  • Well, what about problems A, B, and C mister? You ever thought of that? The “issue at hand” is essential for dealing with those things.
    • Oh yeah, I’ve thought of A, B, AND C, but those are taken care of elsewhere. The “issue at hand,” however, is involved with the “bigger issue” so the “issue at hand” is on my naughty list.
  • [Counter-argument from friend #1:] Well, don’t you think “elsewhere” also contributes to the “bigger issue?” It’s not only their fault!
    • I seem to be on the defensive. Now I will use an extreme example to support my argument and detract from the validity of your point, while also illustrating my contempt for the “bigger issue”.
  • [Counter-argument from friend #2:] I don’t think you know anything at all. You sound stupid. Here are the reason facts A, B, and C are so important, and why they make the “issue at hand” so necessary and not evil. The “issue at hand” is separate from the “bigger issue”.
    • Why do you try to confuse the topic? The “issue at hand” is definitely what I’m mad at. The “issue at hand” is to blame 100% for the fact that A, B, and C exist in the first place. If the “issue at hand” didn’t exist and a few other extreme measures did, we wouldn’t have these “bigger issue.”
  • [Continued counter-argument from friend #2:] I am really mad at you now and am going to tell you that you are full of crap. And I’m going to reitirate the need for the “issue at hand” in order to deal with the very real problem of A, B, and C. So there!

At this point the owner of this Facebook page is completely out of the conversation. This has become an all-out Facebook debate-style war. What would happen if the argument was diffused with a little recognition of the complexity of the issue? I decided to test the theory (I swear there may be a formula to this!) while providing a counter-argument as well.

  • [This is me now:]  …. Step 1: I need to inform you of some facts to legitimize the necessity of “the issue at hand” to deal with A, B, and C. Step 2: (This could also come first in many cases:) I recognize your position and the complexity of the “bigger issue”. I am going to use statements that do not begin with “I” or “you” or personal opinions so the energy of the previous confrontations are removed. Now I will gently reassert the importance of recognizing the value in the “issue at hand.”
    • Reply to previous comment from friend #2 with a “my way or the highway, all-or-nothing” agenda. I’m going to come from nowhere to bring up another really “controversial issue” to make my original point more clear.
    • Reply to the new comment comment with a much more chilled out perspective (this is 10 hours later, which proves that “getting some air” might help), citing personal second-hand experience with the “bigger issue” that has shaped my perspective.
  • I choose to ignore your rather simplified–and outrageous–statement about the “controversial issue” in your first reply, because it would cause another angry debate. Instead I am focused on the calmness of your reply and the submission of a personal connection to both of the “issues.” Step 3: I see a common ground here. In a neutral voice, I relate the conceptual basis and underlying facts of human behavior to the “bigger issue” to explain why your extreme solutions won’t work for everyone. Humans are to blame, not the “issue at hand.” Step 4: I restate something about your argument that I can agree on to enforce that you are being heard. I acknowledge your passion for the issue. Step 5: Without using “should’s,” I express my optimism and hope for a way you could communicate your passion that could positively affect others on the “bigger issue” as well as problems A, B, and C. Perhaps you could advocate for the facts at the heart of both the “bigger issue” and the “issue at hand.” Step 6: Express gratitude for the civility in our discourse, which includes listening to my perspective.
    • I feel the change in tone. I am grateful for the constructive idea. I regret being so aggressive with my wordage at the start. Acknowledge my passion. But… what about this aspect of the “bigger issue?” Doesn’t that support my all-or-nothing assertion?
  • Acknowledge the logic of that perspective but cite the inability for any of us to control the actions of others. Praise your own self-control in relation to the “bigger issue” and named problems A/B/C, but discuss that not everyone may have the same extent of control. Acknowledge that there is not one solution, but that the best thing you or any of us can do (in this case specifically) is model the behavior we wish to see in others–or the behavior we see in others that we admire–to try to encourage our viewpoint.
    • Personal account for what informs my perspective and explains my anger. Acknowledge the points offered–“I have something to think about,” I say. I can see the validity in what you say. Expression of gratitude for the exchange.
  • My expression of gratitude as well. (happy face included)

While the guy and I did not come to an agreement on the “bigger issue,” or the “issue at hand,” we both managed to have a civil conversation and we left with perspectives we hadn’t considered before. It reminded me that at the center of many of these arguments is someone who has been hurt, and who may have formed incredibly strong feelings about the issue because of it.

Reading this without the specifics of the argument, maybe it seems very confusing or reactive. And much of the discussion was. The way facts are emotionally communicated seems to produce this super-charged outcome. If people try to find common ground, or be willing to hear the logic of the other’s argument (to suspend their emotional appeal for the moment), we might make headway on many issues. There will always be disagreement. But perhaps our ability to consider the motivations behind our opponents’ viewpoints will yield a better resolution to these controversies than what we’ve seen in the past.

Unfortunately, I know I will always have a chance to test my theory on communication. The good news is that I live in a country where I can communicate my opinions freely and expect them to be heard by someone. What a gift!

🙂 Have a great day!


The weakness in kindness

Aside

 

Image copyright Charles Fincher. Source: http://www.ncbusinesslitigationreport.com/tags/mediation/

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.

Civility is dead

The Today Show is featuring a series this week questioning, Is Civility Dead? Well, is it? Check out Today’s interview from this morning here.

I couldn’t resist, I had to write a reply to their question (see other replies here). Here it is below:

Civility isn’t dead, it just varies by region. I was raised in Iowa and moved to upstate New York (Albany) in 2006. It was rare to be greeted with “excuse me” or “thank you” in public, but people here are as “nice” as the typical Midwesterner. What differs is the degree of vulnerability people show based on their locale. If I am in an urban area such as Albany, people are more guarded: less likely to interact in the simplest of forms and more suspicious if you interact with them without obvious cause. In short, their social bubbles are different.

I am an artist and one of my central projects is the Be Nice Project, in which I make instructional documents (hand embroidered) and give them out to people to encourage civil behavior while also establishing a dialogue about manners and kindness. My blog focuses on viewing all types of experiences positively including sharing the good ones, and contemplating the insensitive actions of others.

I think that the level of civility a person has depends on their mindset. Some people speak a language that responds to negativity, sarcasm, and frankness. Others speak one which responds to positivity, praise, and tactfulness (a.k.a little white lies). In either case our society needs both to keep the other acutely aware of all the sides to every story (after all, even “kind, positive” people can be rude or mean). Our media (social, television, etc…) depend on what is “snappy” and “controversial” to get the ratings and attention, and this rewards negative behavior 3 times out of 4. The Be Nice Project–as well as The Foundation for a Better Life and The Emily Post Institute among others–operate in our contemporary landscape as anomalies, in which their sincerity is somewhat subversive in an age of irony.

My husband made a good point about civility. People haven’t changed so drastically from the idealized 1950s (though many things have certainly improved, like civil rights for minority groups). What has changed is that people feel freer to express their feelings in public, to make artwork that addresses formerly taboo topics. He theorizes (I believe rightly) that the rudeness and incivility we see is a by-product of the freedom of expression that we have gained in the last sixty years. I don’t think that necessarily makes it okay, but I believe this whole trend is like the swing of a pendulum and eventually we’ll find the middle if we keep at it.

What do you think? And, more importantly, what do you want to change in our “uncivil” society?


LINKS OF INTEREST

IS CIVILITY DEAD? Huffington Post via Dr. Jim Taylor

IS CIVILITY DEAD? Dallas News

IS CIVILITY DEAD? Another blog about the Today show feature