The road to civil discourse is littered with misunderstanding, blame and assumptions, a situation that in today’s ever-shrinking world and faceless social media makes good communication that more difficult to accomplish.
But it’s not impossible, even as someone’s anxiety, fear, anger and tension increase, said Marge Easley at a Curry County League of Women Voters (LOWV) meeting on the topic last Thursday in Brookings.
“It sounds preachy, it sounds quaint, it sounds like proper etiquette,” she said, “but being polite to one another is so much more than that.”
Civil discourse is this year’s topic of concern for the LOWV in San Luis Obispo County in California, and while chapters typically don’t borrow others’ issues for discussion, the local group felt the topic was particularly pertinent in today’s world — and in Curry County. The local league expressly invited elected officials to attend the meeting; only one sitting city councilor — Brookings’ Dennis Triglia — and two city council candidates were in the crowd at the library.
America has strayed a way — many would say a long way — from the days when people could trust their local newspapers and television newscasters, or chat with neighbors over the back fence, Easley said. Technology has a heavy hand in it, as well, with instant gratification expected through an immediate response to a social media text.
Easley said national media and politicians, particularly at the federal level, are provoking tension — and worse — and creating a populace of increasingly angry people.
It hardly makes for civil discourse.
“Civil discourse is defined as the forgotten difference between dialogue and confrontation,” she said, adding that there has been a growing divisiveness and demonization of others, particularly since the 2016 election.
Easley noted the LOWV is nonpartisan, and that all sides in a political dispute are to blame for the negative ramifications.
“Right now we’re feeling it,” she said. “The media likes to push our buttons and the politicians thrive off conflict. And then social media gives blanket permission to use inflammatory language. It’s like an infectious disease. It’s spread to the entire nation. We have forgotten how to disagree, agreeably.”
People typically agree or resolve their differences, but when sides have become divisive and positions hardened, communication stops, Easley said. Perceptions become distorted and the result is increased anxiety, rumors, exaggeration, power plays and a belief that anything “other” is “the enemy.”
The loss of trust plays a part in this, Easley said.
“We’ve lost trust in our government, institutions and media — in each other,” she said. “When you lose trust, we lose a vital part of what makes a successful community. What happens in a community where there’s no trust?”
Listening with an intent to understand — as opposed to listening to create a reply, find a flaw or develop a counter-argument — is a lost skill for many, Easely said.
“Listening to understand is a valuable skill,” she said. “And it’s not the same as agreeing. Many times you can violently disagree, but can do it in an agreeable way. That opens the door to shared values and common ground.”
In the rushed society in which Americans live, too, people don’t take the time to determine if what they heard was indeed what the person said.
Active listening involves asking for another’s perspective, helping another understand what was truly meant and sometimes rewording it for clarification.
Putting words to use
Picking one’s words is key, as well, Easley said.
“How words are used is very important when it comes to politics,” she said, noting that many comments on social media even brag the comments are ‘guaranteed to drive a liberal/conservative crazy.’
“This shapes our view of the world,” she continued. “If we really care about civil discourse, we need to recognize what these trigger words are.”
An audience member asked how, for example, they can have civil discourse with Alex Jones, a far-right conspiracy theorist — he recently has been banned from some social platforms and given a seven-day time-out by Twitter — when viewpoints are so divergent and prevalent a middle ground cannot be found.
Easley suggests seeking out neutral sources for information, avoid the rumor mill and research issues before discussing them with anyone.
“Some people just want the attention and don’t care how they get it,” she added.
The purposeful dissemination of misinformation has even spread to misleading language in ballot issues on which voters are expected to parse the true from false and make a decision that can guide future work on important issues, Easley said.
One woman said communication — particularly in the media — has become so appallingly vague and misleading, some people don’t bother to vote.
“That’s the real danger,” she said. “How many people in the community don’t vote because they are so overwhelmed, so hurt by a lack of civility?”
Easley used fishing — but it could be anything innocuous — as a topic by which people can find a common ground. She might not fish, herself, but she might know someone who fishes — and if not, might eat fish herself.
It was also noted in the meeting that people are hardwired to be fearful of the “other,” and that fear has created tribes of like-minded people, Easley said. And tribalism is the opposite of civility.
Audience members agreed that is sometimes seen here, particularly when locals see “others” — typically from California — come to “our” county, buy property with cash, thus keeping locals out of affordable housing and creating deep resentment and division, audience members agreed
“We need to open the door to shared values and common ground,” Easley said. “We want people to think like us, but civil discourse is (realizing) there’s more than one right answer. It’s not about winning an argument.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .