Sunday, June 3, 2018

Civil Discourse - Essential to a Civil Society

Communication is one of the most fundamental actions human beings undertake. We are in fact dependent upon such actions for our very survival. Logically, the better we are at communicating with one another, the safer and more civil our society is. 

Communication skills follow the general cultural temperament of the community. If the culture is based in fear, as ours now is, communication can be reduced to an inflexible state where you are either right or wrong, where civil debate is impossible, and where discussions about uncomfortable topics turn into knock down drag out fights.

This dynamic is true at home, in the workplace, and socially. Frustration and anger are often the result of this vitriolic discourse. We all have experienced this; most of us have been guilty of it; and none of us particularly enjoy it. But as with so many challenges we face in the constantly changing world we live in, the abnormal has become normalized, accepted, and even promoted. This is indeed a sorry state of affairs and if something doesn’t happen soon, a revolution of sorts is inevitable. Some will argue such a revolution is already underway.

I strongly urge everyone to become more familiar with the concepts of compassion and self-compassion, for it is by clearly understanding them that there is the greatest chance for the greatest number of people to incorporate civil discourse into their lives. Compassion is the ability to relate to the suffering of others, to feel empathetic towards them, and to allow them to choose their path without judging them. We would hope, following the Golden Rule, that they would do the same for us. Self-compassion is far more challenging to us because we have to look inward and take full responsibility for all of our words and actions – all of them. We are our own worst enemies and taking responsibility for ourselves is so filled with judgment that we tend to spend a lot of valuable time seeking a place outside of ourselves to lay the blame for our suffering.

I was recently struck by an article in the Telegraph Journal about a rainbow sidewalk for Sussex. There was some strong disagreement over this issue, which has caused some controversies in other communities. The sad part about this disagreement was the apparent necessity for participants to reduce the discussion to a religious brawl. I am one person who feels that everyone has a right to their own beliefs and the ability to express those beliefs. Where the rub comes is when all perspectives in the discussion take the position that they are right and everyone else is wrong. I am also one person who learned in the sandbox that not everyone is always right or always wrong in any argument. 
The saddest part of that situation was that those who were most vocal and extreme in expressing their views were supposed to be leaders in the community. Clearly, whatever leadership qualities they may have had took a leave of absence. The collateral damage of mean-spirited arguments cloaked in the guise of Christianity, which they demonstrated was grossly misunderstood, is immeasurable but profound. Thankfully, the majority could not be swayed by the careless argument and the sidewalk was installed post haste the next day.

So, what do we do to make the necessary shift from black and white to grey? First, we must understand that it is simply not possible to have a rational discussion when we are in a heightened emotional state. We can shift from an excited state to a calmer state by breathing and removing all judgment. We usually resist both of these actions however, and therein lies the problem. It’s not easy; it requires courage, compassion and respect for everyone. Most of us are in such a state of fear for a variety of survival-based reasons that we just can’t budge.

I cannot encourage you strongly enough to make communicating civilly your highest priority. Your children will benefit and learn by good example how to go forth in the world and live fulfilling lives, to which we all have a right. Your relationships with your life partner and close friends will benefit because you will no longer have the need to be right all the time. Your co-workers and subordinates will benefit for similar reasons. Most importantly, you will benefit by living a far less stressful life, where exhaling and thriving are the norms, not the exceptions.

May I suggest you try doing what one of my mentors does – collect as many perspectives as possible. By being open to what other people have to say, you might surprise yourself by the amount of common ground you have with others. You may find validation of your perspective. You may find a compromise position that results in a win-win outcome. Keep an open mind; don’t judge yourself or others; and remember to always, always follow The Golden Rule. Had the folks in Sussex tried this, any suffering may have been avoided.  

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