We are not living in normal times. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been here before, or that we can’t engage those with different political, religious or social beliefs. The problem is that we seem to have misplaced the most important tool to carry on a respectful discourse – namely, civility.
It’s always easier to look away (or even angrily exit) when we encounter intolerant opinions or attacks on the things we believe. But challenging what someone else believes doesn’t need to be uncivil or mean-spirited. Society thrives and our region and nation improve when there is a free flow of ideas without fear of retribution or name-calling.
So how do we recapture civility? First, we should draw upon the foundations that are basic to all of us: faith, family, community and government. Underlying each of these is the common denominator of concern for the common good.
Secondly, we should step away from our screens, get outside of our homes, offices, political affiliations and other silos.
Visit our neighbors, ask questions, be good listeners, try to understand views that differ from our own. We should tend to our relationships. Identify the broken pieces and offer healing. Find the conflict and offer a resolution. Step up when we see injustice. Step in when we see a way to make a difference. Follow the golden rule, practice kindness. But we must not be weak and we must not be silent. The Talmud teaches that those who see wrongdoing, even by a member of their own household, and fail to speak up to protest it will be held accountable.
The same may be said about our responsibility to our community and our government. Each of us must speak our own truths and values to those in power, even if we find ourselves alone. By speaking truth to power, by calling foul when we see it, we will provide protection to our most important institutions. In his book “On Tyranny,” Timothy Snyder, a Yale University history professor, speaks about the importance of protecting what matters: “Institutions do not protect themselves, rather they must be safeguarded from within by ever-present vigilance in defense of their core values.” Snyder urges us to pick a side, take a stand and defend that which is valuable.
Civility is so much more than being nice: it is being respectfuland strong. American poet Elizabeth Alexander calls it using “words that shimmer” – words with power that convey real truth, which cannot be captured by mere fact.
In the end, disparaging those whose opinions we find irreconcilable with our own produces smoke but no light. Instead, encouraging dialogue helps produce the light we all so desperately need, especially if it enhances within each of us our ability to see beyond our own rigid beliefs.
Irene Walters is the retired executive director of university relations for IPFW and a community volunteer.