Every problem has a solution. The solution to our current social and political unrest is love, kindness, and civility. The solution came to Avon Congregational Church on Saturday, June 4 via a proactive workshop run by the co-founders of Houston’s Institute for Civility in Government (ICG). I hope we consider it.
You’ve seen countless times in our current culture where people on opposite sides of big issues (immigration, abortion, gun regulation, you name it) demonize each other. My side is right, their side is evil. So says Arthur C. Brooks in his book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From The Culture Of Contempt. The book was recommended reading for the Avon workshop run by ICG’s co-founders Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath.
Brooks sees a true version of love as the answer—a love that isn’t fuzzy and sentimental but clear and bracing. Love as Saint Thomas Aquinas defined it: “To love is to will the good of the other.” I love you when I want the best for you.
For me, Brooks’ message is similar to the ICG’s civility message. Dahnke and Spath founded ICG 20+ years ago to plant and grow civility in our government and society. At their Avon workshop they explained how people often misinterpret what civility is. It isn’t just being nice to other people. That’s only the foundation. They define civility as claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.
I attended this civility workshop because the media, politicians, and all of us have already given screaming, shouting, shaming, ranting, and excluding their chance at healing our political discourse disease. But our lack of love and civility toward those we vehemently disagree has made things much worse.
For example, if my news source seeks to stoke rage and hate, if it uses verbal warfare by labeling broad bands of people with divisive terms like “morons” or “lefties” or “demons,” I need a better news source. Like Dahnke said in Avon, our current discussions are all too often focused on attacking and defending with no real conversation.
At the ICG’s Avon workshop, a critical question Spath raised was: Why do we have conflict? His answer was that we have different belief systems at work. Part of the solution to the conflict, to the culture of contempt, is to find out the belief system of the person we are in conflict with. How did our “enemy” arrive at his beliefs? Seek to understand. Find common ground —any common ground— where we can form a foundation of agreement.
We need, according to Dahnke and Spath, to view each other not just by our positions on the issues. We need to get to know people on the other side of an issue as fully human people with families and interests and talents. We stop the hate and vitriol when we give others civility and love. And add kindness to that giving list.
In a recent online essay, political commentator David French, a theologically conservative Christian, says that in political and civic realms kindness means civility. Kindness doesn’t mean surrendering your convictions. Kindness is not an effort to curry favor with people who hate you. Kindness means being civil —listening, showing respect, and seeking first to understand. We spread strong, powerful, influential kindness by avoiding heated anger, name-calling, innuendos, disrespect, and other tactics that further divide and repel us from each other.
While ICG focuses on civility, French recommends kindness, and Brooks calls for love. They’re all making a similar argument.
Brooks cautions that if we don’t view the full person (way beyond their position on any issue) we begin to dehumanize them. Dehumanizing kills our empathy. We stop caring about the other person. Worst case scenario, that leads down the road to horrific acts like the shooters in Buffalo, Uvalde, Newtown, and in too many other places. Hating someone brings us closer to wanting to harm them and that harms us. Showing kindness, expressing civility, spreading love brings us closer together in unity and in the ability to make progress for all.
French recommends seeking equality, not legal superiority. Brooks advises sharing our personal stories because stories possess the power to unite. Dahnke and Spath wrote a book about reclaiming civility with specific rules of civility like listening past one’s preconceptions, and respecting the value of our differences.
When the workshop ended, I told Cassandra that I was looking for this lack of civility issue to be solved by a new leader – another Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. She responded, “Maybe that new leader is you.”
Maybe that new leader is you.
Chris John Amorosino lives in the Unionville borough of Farmington.