Civility, Empathy, and Tears

Civility, Empathy, and TearsIt’s an easy thing to get caught up in the idea that civility is basically cerebral. But as the past week has shown, its emotional reality is vitally important, too.

About a week ago, on January 5th, in a speech in which he announced some executive orders regarding gun control, President Obama shed very public tears as he spoke about the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Our unalienable right to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he said, with a crescendo of emotion, was stripped from first-graders in Newtown. First-graders. And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun. And then, wiping tears from his eyes, he told us: every time I think about those kids it gets me mad.

The President’s tears remind us that though it is not common, displays of raw emotion among American officials have become a part of the landscape of our political culture. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, famous for his tears, once told a reporter that there are just some things that tug at me. He said that he can’t go to schools while campaigning. All of those little sweet kids, I’m a mess. And in 2012, as he discussed the resignation of Representative Gabrielle Giffords – who had herself been the victim of a mass shooting – he appeared to fight back tears on ABC’s Sunday show, This Week:

“I’ve never quite seen a farewell in the House like this,” he said. “A bipartisan effort, all the members were there. A sad day for the House.”

“But, a very brave lady,” Boehner added, choking up.

Progressives, over the years, have made fun of John Boehner’s publicly emotional style, producing lists of instances of tearful moments, or turning his quivering lip into online memes. And similarly, some conservative pundits this week called into question Obama’s sincerity, wondering – among other things – if he had a raw onion hidden behind his podium. Actor James Woods, on Twitter, suggested that the President’s were #CrocadileTears.

But the fact is that tears are powerful, and it behooves us to take them seriously. As Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald says of President Obama’s speech: one grows used to thinking of politics as a craft practiced mostly by people who are only technically human – who are automatons programmed to court votes by any means, including cynical ones. But that’s not the reality. This moment destroyed that perception, he writes. The president wept and it was a starkly human thing.

Institute President and co-founder Cassandra Dahnke has made a similar observation. Tears show us that our public figures are more than politicians or lawmakers or position holders, she responded when asked about the significance of the President’s emotional moment. They are people – and while they are in unique positions, they aren’t any different from the rest of the us.

And that sameness is significant. That sameness highlights one of the core emotional realities necessary to have civility at all: empathy. Tears and other expressions of emotion are outward signs of internal connection. They are part of an economy of emotions that we all – at our best – share between us: the idea that my happiness depends on yours, and that when you suffer, I cannot help but suffer, too.

We often think of this sort of empathy as a feature of art and drama, but it is also the basis of our ability to engage in inclusive politics. Empathy allows us to respect others and make room for their feelings and needs – to make our footprint smaller so they can have space, too. When President sheds tears for the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting, he acknowledges that in some measure the pain of those deaths – the families’ grief and loss – is his pain, grief, and loss. And that connection opens the possibility of acknowledging and balancing conflicting needs.

In the speech, President Obama plainly states: I believe in the Second Amendment. He supports the right to bear arms. But empathy informs an acknowledgment that even where rights are concerned, there is no such thing as absolute good. He tells us this with words when he says that we all believe in the First Amendment … but we accept that you can’t yell “fire” in a theater. And he tells us again with his actions – when he cries.

Does this mean that his tears are a calculated political ploy, as folks like James Woods have suggested? No. But as John Boehner can surely attest, emotional displays need not be calculated to be rhetorically and politically significant.

In both cases – the President’s and the former Speaker of the House’s – tears get to the very personal layer that underlies our politics, the reason we have a political process at all. The fact that I have needs and beliefs that require acknowledgment and respect is basically emotional. And via empathy, my ability to accommodate the needs and beliefs of others is basically emotional, too.

So what we see when our elected officials shed tears amounts to a peek behind the curtain. In tears, their most human selves break through. And in these moments of humanity is the potential for a more civil politics: one that understands that our well-being is interconnected, and that negotiates public policy accordingly.

Civility Linkblogging: Refugees, Classrooms, and Parts of Speech

Civility Linkblogging
A Lynx, because Linkblogging

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.

The most striking item in this week’s collection is probably linguist John McWhorter’s discussion of the pronoun ‘ze’ at CNN.com. There, he discusses the word in the context of the history of gender-neutral language, and he talks about why pronouns are such a difficult class of words to change. But most significantly, he talks about the necessity of gender-neutral pronouns as a civility issue: calling people what they want to be called, he tells us, is both a matter of courtesy and an affirmation that their voice counts, too.

As always, if you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, 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:

‘Please, Have Some Tea.’ For Refugees, Civility Before Danger.
Posted by Jeanne Carstensen at PRI.org, October 2, 2015

Yet they both insist on inviting me to tea. This detail — of hospitality offered in a moment of extremis — sticks with me. I had gone to the Basmane neighborhood with some trepidation. After all, it’s the center of human trafficking, as it’s called, the business of moving people illegally across borders. Looking around me I wondered who was who, who was a trafficker, or a middleman, or a refugee. But when I sat down to interview Asas and Nour and others with my microphone held close to their faces I quickly felt at ease.

I offered to pay for the tea but they would not accept. And when beggars came by our table, the refugees reached into their pockets for coins. No one was turned down.

Civility Counts in the Classroom
Posted by Summer Moore at at NWI.com, October 11, 2015

Think about kids. They are inherently civil because they are so curious. Why is the sky blue? Why does Jimmy have two dads? Why does that person live on the street?

They are yearning for answers and will take them from the person they deem the best authority. Most of the time that person is a parent or guardian, a teacher or caregiver.

We feel that we can reach kids when they are deciding how to interact with people that aren’t the same as them. We can show them that where you’re from and what you look like doesn’t have to mean we can’t respect each other.

Goodbye to ‘He’ and ‘She’ and Hello to ‘Ze’?
Posted by John McWhorter at CNN, October 14, 2015

Language changes with the times, and when it comes to our conceptions of gender, the times are most certainly changing.

We are opening up to the idea that binary conceptions of gender are unnecessarily rigid and don’t correspond to the self-image of a great many people, and even that people’s sense of their gender may not correspond to their biological sex. In this new world, a bland opposition between “he” and “she” seems increasingly antique, and even insulting, to many. …

Now, I would hope that pronouns like “ze” would not be imposed with the knuckle-rapping and contemptuous indignation with which the Billy and I rule has been promulgated. However, there is room for presenting “ze” as a matter not of fashion, but of basic civility — people must think of new pronouns as the proper thing to do, not as a stunt.

Searching for Civility After a Campus’s Annus Horribilis
Posted by Mary Beth Mathews at The Christian Century, October 14, 2015

Directly related to speaking up inside the classroom is my second goal: to build empathy among my students, one class session at a time. That can take the form of free-flowing discussions about current events, but it can also be accomplished by asking students to list and expand on the motivating factors at work in American history and religion. Students will almost always condemn anti-Semitism, for example. But they are better able to see how hatred is constructed and used for oppression after they critically examine the confluence of events that led to Henry Ford’s interest in the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Once they understand the background of such hate speech, it becomes easier for them to identify with the victims of hatred, oppression, and ridicule. Then they can more easily recognize similar biases in society today.

We Found Civility on the ‘Lord of the Flies’ of MMO Servers
Posted by Leif Johnson at Motherboard, October 15, 2015

In fact, a month in, a good number of players seem to live by an ad-hoc code, which contrasts sharply with reports of mass slayings at the spawn-in points for new characters during the game’s launch last month. Now that the novelty of killing newbie players where they spawn has worn off, there’s a touch of civility mingled in with the chaos.

I once saw a roving band of high-level players in the lawless zones as I attempted a run from one bank to another with a fairly low-level hero, only to watch them pass within combat distance without so much as glancing at me.

“Cheers,” one said as they trotted by, leaving me thankful for the mercy.