Civility First

Dear Friends of my Saturday Evening Post, 

After nearly three years of weekly Saturday Evening Post messages I needed to take a break - too many travels away from Saturday nights at home and too much soulful confusion following the election -  and I suddenly found I had nothing of importance to say when I sat to write! I am hoping that my “muse” has now returned and I can share a weekly posting with you. My goal continues to be to offer thoughts out of a context of nonviolence and uplift of spirit.
For the past six months I have been working with seven people: two strong conservative, Republican leaders on Whidbey Island, three like-minded friends of a more liberal orientation who are Democrats, Cathy and me.  Our goal has been to, first of all, gather to listen across our cultural, religious, and related differences with the goal of building enough trust that we can form an organizational structure to offer an alternative to the increasing incivility in our lives and our wider communities. We called ourselves “Civility First…So we can work together.” The idea is that we recognize the common value of the ability to accomplish things, and we dislike the brokenness that makes working together difficult and even impossible. We sought a way to break through our estrangements and to learn to talk and work together as a model for others. We met nearly every other week for four months toward creating a “civility pledge” (see below) that we could agree to and ask others to join us. This was a challenging task on the one hand - avoiding side comments, listening carefully, focussing on the task together - and surprisingly achievable on the other hand as we built personal relationships which, over time, establish trust and the ability to get things done. 
We are still in process of preparing ourselves to go out into the public and offer our proposed workshops promoting civility. But we initiated our public witness last month by renting a booth at the county fair where we asked a wide range of people the general question about whether they were concerned about a growing sense of incivility in our lives, and then specifically by offering them a chance to “vote” yes or no in categories of whether they thought incivility was increasing, for example, in community, workplace, and politics - and to introduce our pledge. For four days we spoke with some 400 people from various walks of life. The results were enlightening.
Most people agreed that there was growing incivility, especially in politics. Some said, though, that they didn’t care and this was normal. But the majority of people did express a serious concern, and most expressed appreciation that we were raising the question and attempting to address it with our pledge.
The more I spoke with a range of people I had two takeaways about how we might attempt to better deal with incivility on a daily basis.
The first takeaway related to the power of words. Many conservatives, for example, said their main concern related to “responsibility” and “accountability,” meaning they were offended and angry that too many people lived their lives irresponsibly and the government covered for them and never held them accountable. And the rest of us were picking up the bill. When I asked if they could "tell me more,” a common response was a story about how their family overcame poverty and hardship through a good deal of sacrifice and hard work. They expected others to do the same. When I began to see a pattern to these stories I came to appreciate the pride many people had in their family history, and it did help to understand their strong reaction to the lack of responsibility and accountability they see around them.
And I could honestly respond that responsibility and accountability were also very key words to me, but from a different angle, perhaps. Yes, everyone should be responsible for their families and their own lives - and be held accountable when they weren’t responsible - but was there a larger context of responsibility for the wider community, especially when hardship was caused by economic structures and unjust systems or circumstances beyond one’s control? When asked this way, I found most everyone could also agree that people trapped by poverty and health care emergencies, among other problems, needed broad community and government support. Thus we began, at least, a civil conversation.
My “liberal” words, in turn, might be more about "compassion" and "justice.” And I found that these were important words for conservatives as well. Conservatives particularly resented being called uncaring, because they truly do feel they care about other people. When I was offered the opportunity to “tell more” I could admit that our government’s efforts to help the poor and people in need was full of problems and injustices, and the goal should be to work together to find the common ground where we can solve the problems of offering responsible safety nets for all who need them. Again, most could agree, and we started a conversation.
These brief summaries are based on just a few minutes conversations at the fair, and the issues are far more complex, obviously. But I learned that civil conversations were indeed possible even where there are serious initial differences in perspectives, and this was encouraging.
The second related issue, as I mentioned above, is our need to learn some specific skills when responding initially to often angry or confusing comments. I like asking, “Tell me more.” But taking a bit of a deep breath before responding can be helpful and useful. When I asked “Tell me more” I was cueing them in that I was really going to try to listen, and I cared to hear what they had to say. People often then slipped into a story from their lives that had led them to think or feel the way they did - and this was true of both conservatives and liberals. And the personal stories are the places where helpful conversations can truly begin, not ideological rants, personal attacks, or defensiveness. “Tell me more” invites the story, at least, whether or not it will follow. 
Civility and nonviolence are above all a daily behavior, a set of practiced skills offered out of a commitment of truly seeking respectful and empathetic engagement with others - and even oneself. Civility is the secular name for this behavior, usually spoken of as manners or mutual respect. I encourage you to try to use the “tell me more” response the next time you begin to be tangled in a conversation that is confrontative. No guarantees, of course, but worth the try!


Civility First Pledge


In order to create a community where we are each treated with civility and respect, each of us affirm that we will:


  1. Value honesty and good will while striving to solve problems.

  2. Attempt genuinely to understand the point of view of others.

  3. Model civil behavior and tone, online as well as in public, by:

  •  Being kind, while maintaining the right to vigorously disagree.
  • Acting respectfully toward others, including opponents.

  • Listening to those who disagree with us, as well as supporters.

  • Making only accurate statements when defending a position.

  • Refraining from characterizing adversaries as evil.

       4. Challenge disrespectful behavior, courteously.

       5. Encourage any person or organization working on our behalf to meet these same
           standards for civil discourse.

       6. Renew our efforts, if we fail, and forgive others, if they fail.


Signed: ________________________________Date: _________


Printed Name of Person Signing: _________________________


Email: _______________________________________________


Organization (if signing for a group): ______________________


☐ Check if you do not wish to publish your name as having signed


Please send to:

Civility First P.O. Box 1076 Freeland WA 98249