weaponizing civility in an age of authentic meanness

People in my world have lately become consumed with the Enneagram. It is not a new thing; rather, it is a centuries old way of understanding nine perspectives on how to approach and respond to the people with whom we share this earth. Lately, Nashvillians are obsessed. To be fair, other parts of Nashville are annoyed. Supremely annoyed. I was at a party last night, and when a friend came in and heard us talking about enneagram numbers, she rolled her eyes, turned on her heal, and said, “I’m going to get an alcohol.” Hilarious.

According to enneagram teaching, some personality types crave authenticity more than others. For those of us who strive to transparently reflect our own authenticity, we also highly value this trait in others. We struggle to understand how others spend so much energy to project an image that might differ from reality. We struggle to understand how others can work so hard to choose their words carefully rather than just articulating how they feel. We can begin to feel that any effort to revise or improve our interaction with the world is not authentic, and therefore a lie. This is a dangerous assumption.

Incivility is not a sign of authenticity.

While I hear and have contributed to the enneagram mania, I also hear a lot of people wondering where our civility has gone. We find ourselves in an age where incivility seems to impress people, where truth telling is only recognized if it is laced with meanness. Treating each other civilly, with kindness and respect, seems insufficiently weak. Encouraged by our leaders to fear others and blame those who disagree, we see the world through binaries. Because we have often lost the ability to see the many facets of a problem and the myriad possibilities in solutions, we become uncivil. Civility is born out of mutual respect, and I’m afraid if one affirms their respect for an adversary now, one is accused of being inauthentic.

What are authenticity and civility? How do we recognize them? Are they good? Are they inherent or are they products of discipline? I believe humanity is at its best when they are both on display, but I am now aware that for many, these two ideas are diametrically opposed. In the last 2 years, civility has become the enemy of authenticity. Put another way, in many circles, the presence of civility exposes one’s inauthenticity, while incivility confirms authenticity.

This is wildly untrue, and yet easily believed by many of us. It goes something like this:

  • We want leaders who are authentic and who tell the truth, too bad if your feelings get hurt in the process. 
  • Civility doesn’t get stuff done, and I’m tired of tiptoeing around instead of telling it like it is.
  • If you say something that is not politically correct then it means you’re authentic, so I trust you.
  • You cannot authentically believe in this cause and be civil to those on the opposing side; you prove your loyalty to us by being dismissive of them.

I’m interested in how our desire for authenticity affects the way we relate to each other in the public sphere, particularly around the ideas of political correctness and civility. For a segment of the population, authenticity dispels political correctness, and political correctness is a sign of insincerity. This is problematic for at least a few reasons. First, it is based on an idea that the best measure of authenticity is meanness. It suggests that deep down we are all jerks who have disdain for anyone who might contradict or even affect us. It assumes that to be authentic is to be unkind. It assumes that the only way to honestly reflect oneself to others is with rudeness.

Second, it undermines political correctness not just as inconvenient for the speaker, but as a problem for a society who prefers authenticity. It equates political correctness with dishonesty, a supposition that leads a person to best demonstrate her authenticity by violating norms of kindness. In this equation, to be politically correct is to be fake, while being insensitive to or dismissive of others is the mark of authenticity.

Third, when we pit political correctness (or civility) against authenticity and therefore trustworthiness, we create an atmosphere where trustworthy leaders are those with the lowest regard for the value of others. We reward leaders who earn our trust by honestly disparaging others with demeaning authenticity.

Fourth, it is easy for us to mistake civility for political correctness. When being politically correct is the opposite of honesty or authenticity, civility—mistaken for political correctness—becomes a mark of weakness or a sign of untrustworthiness. Accusations of civility are actually weaponized to expose a person as weak and inauthentic. Civility dies when authenticity is misunderstood.

In enneagram parlance, as an 8 with a strong 9 wing, I crave authenticity in making things right, but I hope to do it in a way that elevates everyone’s value. In regular-speak, I hope to remind: You don’t have to be an asshole to be a passionate or effective leader! You are not selling out your cause if you are kind to people with whom you disagree. You can be both authentic and civil. You can tell it like it is in a way that keeps the conversation going, rather than shutting it down. It is easy to blame “them” for our rejection of civility. It is easy to think it is “their” fault that so many of us confuse bullying for refreshing authenticity.

It begins with me though. As a member of society, it is on me to find a way to authentically advocate for my values without damaging others in the process. It is my job to speak with civility even when I passionately disagree. If I can’t do it on my own back porch, or in the break room at work, or in the stands at the ballpark, then I have no business blaming “Washington” for our incivility. Authenticity is not demonstrated through incivility. Let’s stop blaming “them” and instead become authentic leaders committed to civility in our own circles. If we do so, we will expand our notion of “us,” and remember we are a people who need each other.

the state of us: citizens or consumers?

With midterm elections hovering, we are inundated with phrases that remind us we are “more divided than ever” here in America.  We are accused and accuse others of playing with identity politics, and we are told to recognize our place in an elected official’s “base” or in our “voting block,” rather than as an interdependent people sharing a continent and a government. Call me contrary, but I am tired of being told how I vote, or what I care about or who I hate.  Before we can tackle if or how we are divided, I’d like to first examine the ways in which many of us engage in the public sphere.  For the next few weeks I will explore the divides we sense, the injustice we decry or ignore, and ways we respond to all of it.  

First though, my hypothesis for how we got here: Many of us have passively traded our duty as citizens for rights as consumers.  We are all driven by economic concerns. Whether you desperately scrape to gather money for this month’s rent or constantly worry about whether you will retire with six digits or seven, money consumes us.  In fact, I believe consuming has become our dominant approach to life.  We experience peace when we pay off our car or vacation home.  We beg others to “consume” us by “liking” our images or thoughts.  We feel valuable and find dignity when we can buy the things we want.  We feel like our government is working for us if we can consume what we want without feeling taxed or burdened by debt.  These truths demonstrate the fact that our relationship to consuming has taken priority over our relationships to one another as citizens who share a country.

Everything is not a transaction. 

As consumers, we reward the places where our dollars best stretch.  Indeed, we frequent businesses that sell cheap stuff because many of us can only afford cheap stuff.  Even if we earn high wages, most of us feel entitled to buy more with less.  We have forgotten that we are citizens, not consumers.  A citizen asks what governmental policies lead us to have stagnant wages, a growing pool of working poor, and the growing wealth of the top 1%.  A consumer starts to pay attention when bills are due.  A citizen starts to pay attention when companies move jobs and tax shelters overseas, using American infrastructure without paying into the economies that build and support that infrastructure.

We are not only consumer-minded first as citizens, but also as towns and communities.  For decades, we have chosen to compromise our tax base to lure businesses and professional sports to our towns.  In our metro councils and state legislators, we govern like consumers, not like citizens.  We allow ourselves to be victimized by companies who say they will only choose our city if we give them a tax free decade, for instance.  Think about the nation-wide courting process of Amazon, who is looking for a location for their second headquarters.  Cities and towns can’t lower taxes fast enough for them.  Sure, these companies bring jobs, but if those jobs pay low wages in a town that had to cut services in order to woo the company there, citizens are damaged in the process.

A recent episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley is a hilarious parody of this trend.  Gavin Belson, a morally bankrupt CEO, comes to an American town that rolls out the red carpet for him.  He announces to the crowd that if their mayor loves them, he will agree to all of Belson’s terms, ensuring Hooli, his Google-esque company, builds a factory.  Sounds patriotic, right?  The CEO wants nothing more than to build his plant in good ole’ Murica.  The catch, however, is that the CEO will bankrupt the town in order to secure a deal that protects his expected 80% profit margin.  The mayor agrees to the terms because he wants to say he brought jobs back, but the town is destroyed by the decimation of its tax base. 

In the same vein, we often buy the lie that business could pay employees more if they weren’t so strapped by regulation.  Regulations are expensive, yes; regulations also keep people alive.  A cursory look at the industries of coal, automobiles, paints, or tobacco should remind us that regulations are always loathed and also created because people die when profit margins are the loudest voice at the table.  Companies rightly complain that regulations cost them money, forcing them to create safe working environments, to sustainably source items, to more aggressively test products before they are available to the public.  This is expensive, and there are surely absurd regulations on the books.  Industries complain that all regulations, rather than protecting customers, actively hurt them by forcing prices to increase dramatically.  When the public joins the cry that “Regulations kill jobs!”, we dramatically shift from citizen to consumer.  In advocating for blanket deregulation, we prioritize our desire for low prices over our right to health and safety.  A citizen would demand every American company not sell products that are dangerous or are made in environments toxic for their employees.  A consumer simply wants more things made cheaply.  In short, we have exchanged our role as citizens for our need to consume.   

The abandoning of citizenship impacts other aspects of our engagement as well.  This shift has damaged our ability to share our cities as it has removed the ideas of mutual interdependency and shared sacrifice from our ways of viewing each other.  Consumers want to pay for what they want and get out. Citizens, on the others hand, have to have a conversation about what works for the many. Citizenry demands we acknowledge that America is a shared space, and therefore compromise is necessary.  Everything is not a transaction.  If you shift from consuming to civically engaging, then you have a vested interest in seeking out many sides of an issue.

Our government, at least in theory, provides space for every voice to matter. What if we collectively decided to call America’s bluff? To step out of our comfortable role as passive consumers, striding together down the road as engaged citizens, advocating for a more perfect union.  If you are frustrated by those who decry the terrible “direction of the country”, then evaluate and actively change your position and behavior. We are citizens, not consumers, and it is time we start acting like it. 

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?