In Support of Civility

As the United States gears up for what is sure to be yet another contentious election cycle, I am reminded of this quote from Howard Ross, which I first heard mentioned during the opening ceremony of the 2015 Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication:

“The real question is, do we want to be right, or do we want to have a civil society? If the answer is the latter, it starts with each of us.”

The need to be “right” seems to be hardwired into the American ego, regardless of which end of the political spectrum we fall under. Social media has turned this need into a fight to be right, as the relative anonymity of the Internet has made it possible for people to attack one another without shame or fear of consequence. The loser is civil discourse.

As interculturalists, we endeavor to understand and appreciate the beliefs and values of people from other cultures, and yet we sometimes fail to apply that insight and compassion to our compatriot brothers and sisters who may not share our own political views.

It is true that American liberals and conservatives tend to exhibit certain contrasting cultural orientations. For example, regarding issues of power and responsibility, liberals lean toward harmony, while conservatives favor control.   When it comes to our national boundaries, liberals tend to support greater openness and sharing, while conservatives are typically more closed and protective. Liberals often welcome change and tend to have a high tolerance for ambiguity, while conservatives usually prefer stability and exhibit greater uncertainty avoidance.

Still, if we were to ask a group of “typical” Americans of mixed political persuasion what they considered to be our core American values, most would include some combination of the following: individuality, freedom, equal opportunity, mobility, safety, choice, competition, efficiency. Despite all the angry rhetoric, it is not really so much in our values that we differ, but rather in our ideas and attitudes regarding how best to achieve and advance those shared values.

While those of us who identify as liberal may seek harmony, support openness and sharing, welcome change, and embrace ambiguity, we should understand and appreciate that it is not “irrational” for people to want to exercise control over their situations, to protect the things they value, or to strive to maintain some degree of stability in their lives. In fact, given the right circumstances, we can be just as controlling, protective, and troubled by uncertainty as anyone.

Sometimes, in our passionate desire to be “right,” we may forget that the human beings on the receiving end of our arguments are usually operating from a set of social and cultural orientations that are just as much a product of basic human nature as our own. Keeping that truth in mind, and respecting the dignity of our ideological opponents accordingly, is the best way to keep the creeping tendency toward uncivil discourse in check.

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