Northam, Flake and distracting ourselves with civility

A few weeks ago former Senator Jeff Flake, NPR producer/reporter Zoe Chase, and historian Jon Meacham spoke at Vanderbilt University. It was a packed house, and the conversation was well informed, if stilted at times. Flake, now known for his call to elevate our discourse in political arenas, has consistently lamented the lack of civility in the public sphere. He is seen by some as a brave maverick who stood up to forces in his party accustomed to demonizing voices of dissent, and he had to leave politics as a result.

For the past month I have explored the divide between who we hope to be and who we sometimes become. It has often been uncomfortable, as it’s hard to see our hypocrisies, to notice our lies and to trace the impact of our delusions on our selves and others. Such periods of reflection are necessary for people who believe everything matters, and yet, I am reminded of the words my mother often sends me when she reads my work: “Remember to notice the good! Don’t just highlight the bad, but celebrate the good.”

We have never more passionately celebrated calls for respectful disagreement and civil discussion. Hooray! Senator Flake issued such rhetorical admonitions, chastising those who demonized others. In teaching a course on composition and rhetoric this semester I have been delighted to remember that rhetoric is the study of how new information interacts with old information. How do we allow new ideas to impact the perspectives we already hold on an issue? A look at various media, the Senate floor, or a church hallway might reveal we are quite bad at reaching across lines of difference, at receiving the experience of another that seems to threaten the stability of an idea we espouse.

A scholar named Jim Corder argues that we are generally terrible at having our ideas challenged because we haven’t been honest about how we developed them in the first place. In other words, the narratives we tell ourselves about how the world works are deeply entwined in our own sense of self, and our positions are therefore not mere intellectual thought experiments, but rather reflections of us. We argue fiercely, easily feeling defensive or attacked, because we embody—we have become—what we believe. When a person undermines that belief or tries to toss it aside we feel as though they are tossing our very selves aside.

Can we find ways to evaluate how our core life experiences shape the ideas we esteem and the positions we hold? If we want to converse civilly, we must also examine ideas or positions that result from equally genuine and valuable life experiences, even if they are not our own. Seen in this light, Flake’s call is surely necessary, if not noble. I’m thankful he used his platform to name incivility when he saw it, but I am afraid our conversation on civility is a distraction from the policy issues that undergird it. Many of us, like a starving person offered a piece of bread, seize these critiques of how we speak to one another, consuming them with gratitude. Something in us resonates as we cry, “Finally! We’re better than this! We value character and good ideas, we don’t bully and rely on stereotypes!”

 The truth, of course, is that biases often impact our speech, assumptions and thinking without our recognizing them; however, I’m afraid that when we focus on speech, we miss the more important point. The biases that ooze out in our discourse, shocking us, heavily influence our ideas about fairness and justice. They impact the policies we support, and allow us to vote into law ideas that codify our incivility. Our discourse is surely problematic, but if we think our words are unkind, think about the policies those words produce. Our speech can be civil while our policies do violence to those with little power. I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse, while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

This week a photo depicting a white man in blackface next to a Klansmen was found on the Medical School yearbook page of Virginia’s Governor. He apologized for his poor taste and begged for the right to earn the trust of Virginians. Bafflingly, a day later he claimed he couldn’t recall if he was actually in the picture, so it should not reflect poorly on him, although he did recall using a bit of shoe polish to darken his skin on another occasion. As the mounting calls for his resignation clash with his refusal to do so, many people are consumed with labeling him racist or with arguing it was a long time ago and we all make mistakes.

Our past choices—the things we thought funny or appropriate—certainly reveal much about what we valued and to whom we listened. When they surface, it is customary to argue indefinitely about what those choices reveal about us then and now. However, such discussions distract us from a better question: Has he governed in a way that rejects stereotypes, racial hierarchies, and a preference for the powerful at the expense of the poor, or has he not? Who are his friends and advisors today? Rather than arguing about whether a picture makes one racist, what if we expanded our conversation so that we examine how the actions of a person demonstrate their values?

Let’s ask more of ourselves than Senator Flake or Governor Northam do, so that we don’t lose sight of the physical impact of our uncivil speech or past jokes. Yes, we need to clean up our rhetoric, and engage others with respect. How much more important is it for us to see the devastating impact of our choice to overlook the lives of others?

I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse,

while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

 My hopeful conclusion is simply this: civil discourse and civil governance are not mutually exclusive. Let’s be people of word and deed. Let’s be people who don’t just point fingers at others, but who ask ourselves how we came to believe the things we believe. Whose experience did we value when we decided how the world worked and what solutions are needed? Please do call out incivility, or past racist acts, but it is foolish to then call it a day, stopping with our speech or personal behavior alone. We must take the next step and appeal to one another for ongoing civil governance. Let’s ask our leaders to behave and speak respectfully, but let’s demand that they support policies that treat all people civilly.

bad manners: how we talk politics

This week is election week in Middle Tennessee, and that means the phone calls and door knockers are out in droves. Sometimes the eager human standing on my porch has such a painful combination of nervous earnestness that I am tempted to say I’ll vote for a candidate I find unacceptable in almost every way. My favorite moment so far has been with a nearly prepubescent-looking young man who came to the door. I was dressed inappropriately, my daughter looked abandoned as she stood crying for juice with her hair only half braided, and I was holding onto my dog’s collar for dear life as she tried to attack our visitor (or maybe escape to her freedom in the civilized wilds of our neighborhood). Despite the fact that it clearly was NOT a good time, my young guest launched into his shpeal. I already supported his candidate, so I tried to listen, hunched over to hide my pajamas, clutching the dog with one hand while unsuccessfully attempting to smooth my daughter’s hair with the other. We crossed the Rubicon of reasonable interaction when I realized he was determined to use his entire script, and was actually trying to casually get to know me so he could discern which issue he should emphasize. After a few failed attempts to ask me to chat about my background or neighborhood, I tried to gently but abruptly say, “This is really not a great time for me to have a conversation, but I am grateful you are on our street, and I appreciate [specific things] about your candidate, and I’d love a yard sign. Thanks for stopping by.” If there is a way to be both gentle and abrupt, I don’t know it, so I’m sure my supportive words were diminished by my haggard and rushed delivery. Indeed, I think we all felt relieved it was over (except for the damn dog!).

If we are unwilling to talk with people about our evolving views on life in a civil society, are we not helping sustain an uncivil one? 

I have equal parts admiration and cringiness for such campaign volunteers.  Admiration because they believe so strongly in the necessity of an informed and engaged citizenry that they brave the heat, wild animals, hostile encounters, and awkward interactions with people like me just to tell us an election is coming and they have some thoughts to share! I admire their effort and determination. I cringe because they don’t know who will open the door: an ally or an adversary. Yesterday a representative called to tell me, with nary a pause for breath, that her candidate was committed to American values, not lying and politics-as-usual, just like President Trump. She went on to say we needed more tax relief for job creators, less government regulation, and a solid governor who was very pro-life and very pro-gun. I attempted to abruptly but gently (again, not possible) interrupt her to say, “I appreciate you calling but I don’t think it is possible to be “very” pro-gun and pro-life and I think most of those policies would be terrible for our state. Thanks for calling though!” As the call ended, I wondered why I didn’t ask her what she cared about instead of simply trying to get off the phone. Could I engage a person reading a script like that to ask them how de-regulation will help the citizenry, or how being pro-gun lines up with being pro-life? I know these positions make sense politically, but how are they aligned in real life? Do they come from the same ethical framework? She might have had a compelling argument, and I could have learned from her. Instead, I gave my opinion and ended the call, as if a conversation was not even possible.

Is it possible to discuss politics without getting defensive or aggressive? The lack of conversations like the one I imagined above is directly linked to the divisive speech and acts that fill our public sphere. We don’t know how to talk to each other about the things we care about. We don’t know how to care about our own interests and the interests of others. Even worse, we aren’t allowed to wonder aloud about the things we aren’t fully sure about.

It is considered bad manners to bring up political issues at many supper tables or work lunches, but I am advocating for exactly that. In an age in which some of our news, most of our political ads (and many Presidential tweets, for that matter) seem to stand alone, beyond any context or factual evidence, face to face discourse about issues or candidates is a remarkable thing. What if, instead of thinking it was bad manners to talk politics, we tried to talk about our hopes or convictions or understanding of economics and regulatory processes with other people?  What if we talked about school board candidates with people whose kids go to Title 1 schools, charter schools, and zoned schools, or with principals, teachers and folks who work in the central office? If we only discuss such things with “safe people” (aka people with whom we agree), then we are far more likely to vote in an uninformed way.

If we are unwilling to talk with people about our evolving views on life in a civil society, are we not helping sustain an uncivil one?  I know many have been burned in political conversations that go off the rails; however, it seems to me that we are trapped in a prison we are all actively building.  We say, “I just can’t imagine supporting that person” or, “How on earth does X think it is okay to believe this while voting for that?” What if we instead directly asked, “Will you help me understand your thoughts on this candidate (or this issue)?” or, “I honestly struggle with part of the platform. What are your thoughts?” Some folks know exactly what they believe, while others struggle to coherently justify their voting record. Those with strong beliefs need not bully those who are uncertain. Imagine being the person others come to in order to learn about an issue or a candidate. Imagine being a person who engages in conversations not to persuade or to win, but to understand, to inform, and to open new possibilities for thinking. Political conversations require patience and curiosity; it requires humility to realize you might not have thought through every possible outcome or implication of your position. Nevertheless, such conversations are necessary! If we don’t like our political climate, we need to talk face to face about candidates and issues with one another. Let’s make apathy, bullying and ignorance bad manners. Let’s talk with each other.

are salon's back?! in search for a civil public sphere

In 17th century Paris, the Salon phenomenon brought curiosity, enlightened thought and informed conversation to life.  It is the stuff of fantasy.  Leading thinkers, gathering together in the public sphere, to talk with one another, sharing ideas, listening, learning and arguing about how society might better function.  Print media did not yet exist, and so people had to gather, leaning in to one another to learn.  There were participants and there were spectators, but ideas were the champions of the day.  Ideas soared or were slayed based on the informed, rational, and civil public discourse that swirled around them. 

I have long dreamed of creating a similar arena in today’s world, expanded to include every gender, race and class.  I am a scholar with a PhD.  So yeah, I guess I know things.  But there are many, many gaps in my knowledge, and I would love nothing more than to sit with people on my porch, in a coffeehouse, or at a bar, and learn from others.  To think with people about things that matter.  To be so curious about what I don’t know that I listen to learn, not just to respond.  To discuss ideas that could bring more flourishing to people or the planet.  To talk about the many ways trauma, hate or fear destroy lives.  To bring our thoughts out into the open in an attempt to spur just action.

While I have romanticized this idea for over a decade, I have simultaneously shunned social media as distraction propping up vanity.  I have had no interest at all in redefining the words “friend”, “like”, “follow” or “tweet.”   People chasing the ridiculous approval of others become more performative, less authentic, right?

Enter the hypocrisy of my dreams. 

While I was busy shunning all the shallow people, most of you were experiencing small and large doses of the amazing salons of Paris without me!  While I was too arrogant to feel left out, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps platforms like facebook, reddit, twitter—and even instagram and snapchat to lesser extents—had become the new public sphere.  These arenas can beautifully create space for the exchanging of ideas, the fostering of curiosity, and the engaging of thoughtful discussion.  The salon lives! Could it be? On social media, of all things?

If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face. 

When my teenage son earned a phone and begged for an instagram account, I reluctantly created an account as well (in the name of good parenting).  Within a year, the slippery slope of engagement led me to create a twitter account as well (in the name of launching ExpandYourUs.com).  Here is what I’ve learned.

Social medias are public spheres.  Conversations are happening 24/7, and people from every walk of life engage each other in this magical space.  Yes, there is a shit ton of noise.  Yes, there are many more uninformed people with intense opinions than should be legal.  Yes, I wish they would all stop talking.  But I have learned that there are also interchanges full of wonder and curiosity.  There are people teaching others everywhere.  Lonely and oppressed people have been uplifted; silenced voices have been given a megaphone.  Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Words and images speak to the soul.  Words are now amplified to destroy lives more than ever.  Images undermine and ruin careers and futures.  But words and images also offer us powerful ways to engage our deadened and distracted souls.  They give birth to empathy and compassion hard to find in our own routines.  They create space for curiosity and wonder.  Social media, with its manic merging of words and images, provides all of us with the ability to share goodness and beauty on a large scale.  It is easy to bemoan the destructive influence of social media as it spews hate and dehumanizes people who think differently; nevertheless, I offer an apologetic for the redemption of these platforms upon which we might remember how to engage civilly.

I am instinctively a binary thinker, but I am learning, partially through my disgust at social media, that binaries destroy nuance, and a lack of nuance prevents empathy.  In an ode to nuance, I would like to suggest that perhaps we might recognize the possibilities for an enlightening, empathy-building, public discourse provided by social media platforms.  If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face.  Rather than placing all our despair or all our hope in “the media,” or in “social media,” could each of us do our part to keep conversations going?  Instead of trying to win an argument, could we try to listen to a perspective wildly different than our own?  Could we privilege understanding over correcting?  Rather than creating profiles and a way of being in the world that encourages others to either passively observe us or to defensively react to us, could we actively attempt to interact?  To share ideas, to engage in conversations, to create a public sphere where perspectives are discussed, where the experience or thoughts of others are considered and honored?  As long as we pretend like the problem is “out there” or “with them,” refusing to acknowledge the ways in which we ARE the problem, social media will devolve in the same ways everyday conversations have: into defensive anger and the stubborn denial of other perspectives. 

Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Because I believe civil discourse helps us all become better humans, creating more connected communities, and because social media is a ubiquitous public sphere, I am committing to do my part to make it feel more like a French salon, and less like a Spanish bull ring.  Join me?