Finding Strength in Children

Lauren Cunningham is blogger and member of the Institute who is passionate about forming community and believes that our sense of community is vital in making meaningful strides toward the collective hopes and dreams we have for our children and their future. You can find more of her writing at Things I Teach My Children.

How daunting it is to raise children in a society so fraught with conflict. When our differences are more pronounced than our similarities and the future seems all too uncertain, it’s difficult to know how to guide our children toward their roles as responsible citizens amidst a bitterly divided nation.

In the face of great cultural and political divide, standards of civility have taken on an antiquated, if not controversial, status.

Those who wield political power and social influence are rewarded for abandoning all pretense of civility in favor of condescension and derogatory name-calling. This behavior is often reflected in our own day-to-day desire to prove our point and condemn our opponent. And all the while we are left wondering, in a collectively exhausted state, if rhetoric and dialogue which retain respect for our perceived opponents has any skin left in the game.

It’s easy to see how civil behavior is losing a popularity contest. When communities feel trampled upon or threatened, when people are made to feel belittled or forgotten, our natural reaction is to fight it out and defeat our opponent. If there is something for which we feel strongly, it may feel weak and superficial to be civil in our interactions with people who we believe are gravely wrong. It may even seem subservient to “their agenda”. Thus we assume the role of warrior in order to “combat” their presence in our society.

The thing is, when I look at my young children, I realize my job is not to raise combatants who rally against their neighbors. Rather, my responsibility is to raise civilians who tirelessly and peacefully strive to build a safe and just society for all.

However much I want my children to pursue justice, I cannot teach them that this pursuit entitles them to treat others uncivilly. In fact, despite the growing controversy surrounding this behavior, my children are taught that they must try to be civil. Always.

When engaging in any kind of social matter, I want my children to appeal to the best which is within themselves, as well as those with whom they disagree.

This commitment is not showing weakness, frailty or privilege, but rather an inner strength which holds that all people are created equal and thus deserving of a recognized inherent dignity. If I want my children to promote justice, I need to provide them with as much of this strength as humanly possible for the arduous task. The belief in the inherent dignity of all can provide a will to carry on when everything seems to be going against them.

Radical love, or radical justice, calls us to embrace a consistent code of civility. Consistency in its application to all humans, regardless of whether we believe they merit it or not, is to embrace true equality and a fervent belief in humanity’s ability to apply reason and intentionality to our words and actions. If what my children believe is good and true, then they need to employ all that is good and true to bring about this vision. Regardless of what they are facing, the strength of their positive message must be the victor, not their pride.

These days, my young children want retribution for every unfair thing that happens to them. An eye for an eye. But in teaching them that civility means laying aside the desire for self-gratifying retaliation, I hope to alleviate for them the exhausting and toxic cycle we now find ourselves in today. If we continue as we are, no one will have the last word or obtain reconciliation.

And though humanly impossible not to struggle with the urge to be uncivil, I hope that the majority of my children’s energy could be directed toward greater things.

They could rely on wit instead of vulgarity in advancing their beliefs.

They could use their knowledge instead of their biases to discuss the issues.

They could have the courage to listen instead of always having to prove a point.

And perhaps most radical of all, they could recognize that kindness does not negate truth, but often facilitates the conversion experience toward real and meaningful change.

So, I teach my children that strength lies in civility. And I know I’m not alone in teaching this.

Finding Civility amid Tragedy and Polarization in Israel

Town of Duma, in The West Bank
By NordNordWest, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed CC-BY-SA.

This past summer – and especially the last few weeks – have seen several pieces of news come out of Israel that are disturbing, and that deserve further consideration as we think about civility. And in a recent blog post for The Times of Israel titled Condemnation is Not Enough. We Need Change, author Sarah Tuttle-Singer does just that.

On July 31st, in the West Bank town of Duma, a Palestinian toddler was killed and three members of his family were injured in a deadly arson attack perpetrated by Israeli settlers in the disputed territory. According to The New York Times, the child killed was eighteen-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and his parents are Saad, 32 and Riham, 27 (who was was still on fire when neighbors came on the scene). Hebrew graffiti was sprayed nearby reading Revenge, and accompanied by a Star of David.

Meanwhile, not two months earlier, The Times of Israel ran a story about a poll of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers conducted by the Rafi Smith Institute that found that:

Forty-five percent of Jewish teens said they were not prepared to sit in the same classroom with Arab classmates, while 39% of Arab students said the same of their Jewish peers.

The poll also found that only 28% of Jewish respondents said they condemned so-called price tag attacks associated with religious, far-right Jewish groups. Price tag attacks, writes The Times of Israel, are incidents of violence or vandalism like the arson in Duma that target Palestinians or Israeli security forces as payback for actions against the settlement enterprise.

This all points toward what seems to be an increased tolerance for violence as a problem-solving tool among Israeli youth. And it points toward a cause that seems particularly relevant to the question of civility: increased polarization brought about by a breakdown in communication.

Responses to the Duma attack have been sincere condemnation across the board. As The Jerusalem Post reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was shocked over this reprehensible and horrific act, and called it an act of terrorism in every respect.

But as Sarah Tuttle-Singer tells us so passionately, it is no longer enough to condemn these attacks. It is not even enough to seek the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

In her Times of Israel blog post, Tuttle-Singer looks at the incident in Duma, and looks at the type of polarization indicated by the Rafi Smith Institute poll, and calls for a kind of radical civility that starts from below. She says – rightly – that hate is a learned behavior. And she says that the best solution to hate is for us – and especially our children – never to learn it at all.

The good news, she says, is that Israeli schools don’t teach hate. But leaving it at that is inadequate: Our kids grow up separated from Arabs, and all they learn is what they’ll see on TV when there’s a war. It’s disheartening, and dehumanizing, and it needs to be remedied.

Overcoming hate, Tuttle-Singer writes, means building bridges of communication and finding sameness amid difference. It means Israeli children having:

a real opportunity to meet Arab kids — kids who may pray differently, but who probably enjoy the same snacks. Kids whose first words were in a different language, but probably love swimming in the same big blue sea. Kids who may be shy at first — as my kids will be, too — but who will find common ground because kids always do when given that chance.

Specifically, what Tuttle-Singer calls for is action, not reaction – mandatory programs that require Israelis and Palestinians to get to know one another in a safe environment, where trust begins.

But what she is calling for in a more abstract sense is a kind of civility that privileges dialog across difference, and the ability to acknowledge cultural diversity while embracing, too, the idea that beneath it all, there is more about us that is the same than is alien.

Children, Tuttle-Singer implies, understand the polarizing consequences of longterm political disputes even before they understand the causes. And by inoculating children with a sense that the other side is alive, and human, and just trying to make their way in the world, we prepare them to tackle those disputes without embracing the hatred that has become their baggage and their legacy.

This simple idea of finding common humanity through dialog is good not just for children but for adults, too. And no less than in Israel, it can teach us here in the United States a thing or two about how to do civility right.

Tommy and Me and the Mending Wall

C. John Grom is a retired executive recruiter whose passion for effective government led him to found of “Right and Left Inc.”, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit corporation committed to the promotion of political civility. He is the Producer and Moderator of an award winning local television talk show “The Right and Left Discussion Forum” which is available on the Internet at www.my.pegcentral.com, and a frequent guest contributor to the editorial page of his local newspaper. In addition he manages www.civilitymatters.org, a web site and blog promoting political civility. Mr. Grom holds a BSBA degree from the University of Akron.

Dewey_Defeats_Truman

In 1948 Tommy and I were nine years old and we got into a fight by the bike rack behind our school. He liked Truman and I liked Dewey. I don’t know why I liked Dewey or why Tommy liked Truman, the way they looked I suppose. Why does any nine year old decide who they would like to see elected President of the United States? All I remember is that it mattered enough at the moment for Tommy and me to duke it out.

The election was a few weeks away and we were both aware of the adult conversations that took place around us. I was a Dewey fan much like I was a fan of the Cleveland Indians who had just won the World Series for the first time in twenty eight years. Anything positive that was said by adults about Dewey or the Indians I took for gospel and repeated it with my own embellishments. By the same token I would reject out of hand anything positive about Truman or negative about Dewey or the Indians.

Tommy felt the same way, only opposite, so we argued. We insulted each other and we called each other names and actually came to blows that one time. But we were only nine years old. Neither one of us knew much about either candidate or the issues of the day but it didn’t matter we had each picked our side and we believed anything that supported it and we built a wall between us.

Our wall was something like Robert Frost’s Mending Wall in his great poem of the same name. Frost describes how he and his neighbor would meet every spring to repair the winter damaged wall that divided their property. On a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each…. We wear our fingers rough with handling them. Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, one on a side. It comes to little more: There it is we do not need a wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. Frost goes on,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.

Tommy and I did not ask to whom we were likely to give offense; offense was the centerpiece of our relationship. We were not trying to convert each other, we were trying in every way possible to demean and diminish each other with our words and gestures. We didn’t listen, we didn’t question, we didn’t care we just wanted to strike out. Our reward, if there was one, was the belief that we had launched the most damaging insult before the bell rang ending recess. But, we were only nine years old and that’s the way nine-year-olds behave.

I have friends on social media sites who remind me a great deal of the nine-year-old Tommy and me. The insults and name calling hurled across the political wall have no apparent purpose other than to give offense and no apparent result other than to harden people against each other. They often link their page to ultra partisan websites that appear to exist only to provide their site visitors with reinforcing material for their prejudices or additional insults to hurl over the wall.

There is a good reason we are not allowed to vote when we are nine years old. At that age we still have a lot to learn about cooperation, collaboration, reconciliation, consensus building, compromise, listening to each other, caring about each others’ needs and make our contribution to a society that provides possibilities for all of us to live happy, healthy and productive lives.

When we are nine years old we have not yet learned to ask ourselves before we build a wall, what am I walling in or walling out and to whom I was likely to give offense. We know as mature adults that good fences do not necessarily make good neighbors. Sometimes we have to tear down the wall to see that we really have a lot in common with each other, that without the wall we can do things together that no one group of us could possibly do alone.

Civility Linkblogging: Turkey, Canada, and The Internet

This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility from around the Web. We glean the links in this segment from as broad a cross-section as we can manage of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other online venues, from the United States and around the world.

This week’s links, in part, follow a thread of discourse that has been developing since the beginning of July about civility, and civil discussion, on the Internet. They include an overview of research on how we might increase civility in comment threads. And they include a debate that is currently unfolding at The Toronto Star newspaper about whether allowing anonymous commenting is appropriate, given that it may encourage poor behavior.

The week’s links also include a discussion of some of the civility lessons that can be gleaned from the civic strife in Turkey, a conservative perspective on intemperate language in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in the DOMA case, and a discussion that draws heavily on the work of sociologist and folklorist Gary Alan Fine about the causes of incivility in children and teenagers.

Do you have a link that you think would be right for this segment? Please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Readers Ask Why the Star Allows Anonymous Online Comments
Posted by Kathy English at The Toronto Star, July 5, 2013

While the Star’s digital team has put considerable and commendable effort into creating a “Community Code of Conduct” that spells out in clear terms this news organization’s expectations that commenters who want to have their say within the Star remain civil, Ferri well understands the concerns of those who believe that anonymity contributes to the incivility we abhor.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that requiring real names would reduce trolling,” he said.

There is also little doubt that requiring real names on comments would discourage some from commenting within the Star.

How Can Communication Technology Encourage Civility?
Posted by Derek Powazek at Big Questions Online, July 9, 2013

In this essay I will focus on exploring why we behave as we do online, and suggest some solutions for increasing civility. I’ll try to use as much social science as is possible. As this is a new area of research, some of the studies I reference are from other areas, but their results are apt. My central argument is that good people can behave poorly in online situations, but civil behavior can be encouraged by design.

Civility: It’s the Glue That Holds Society Together
Posted by Chris Hannay at The Globe and Mail, July 12, 2013

What is civility on a grand scale?

Civility is that moment when two groups who have been fighting for a very long time reach a stalemate, so they decide to agree to stop trying to kill each other and live with each other. To allow a certain measurement of disagreement. More than anything, it’s the idea of toleration.

Root Out Rude Behavior by Setting Example for Children
Posted by Bill Stanczykiewicz at The Salem Leader, July 15, 2013

Instead of celebrities or civic leaders, authoritative communities depend on parents, extended family, neighbors and community members. These caring adults exemplify and set clear rules and expectations, celebrate when these standards are met and immediately offer clear, even-tempered correction when they are not.

The best communication occurs when adults model the civil behavior they want young people to emulate, and members of the authoritative community realize that child development takes a long time.

Time For Internet to Grow Up
Posted by Nina Munteanu at The Toronto Star, July 6, 2013

Now it’s time for the Internet to grow up. To be sure, this boiling pot of largely unrestrained creativity has generated a vibrant revolution of free expression. The Internet culture currently flourishes with unique creativity and freedom within a chaotic sea of possibility. As an ecologist and follower of complexity theory, I see this as a good thing. But I also see the need for natural succession to occur.

How the Star and other media organizations treat this step in our online evolution may help shape the very freedom that Internet society so values. How we treat anonymity is the key.

Civility Must Start at The Top
Posted by David Nammo at The Washington Times, July 16, 2013

This is not to argue the legal merits of the DOMA. It is, however, voicing a word of warning about using the type of rhetoric the Windsor majority did. In both the short and the long run, it will serve no one’s legitimate purposes to demonize those holding opposing views or to declare those views on marriage “off limits” to debate. It is possible — indeed, essential — for those who support same-sex marriage to respect those who support traditional marriage, and vice versa. Vilifying opponents does not further the “evolution of equality.” Rather, it erodes that evolution and our civil society along with it.