Seeking Positivity Through Times of Political Unrest: How to See the Glass Half Full By: Mea Ayers

No matter where you lie on the political spectrum – far left, far right, or somewhere in between – most Americans can acknowledge that we are in a time of great political unrest. Some may deny this, commenting that they are “perfectly fine with how things are,” and have “never been happier” with our political situation.

Google Dictionary defines unrest as “a state of dissatisfaction, disturbance, and agitation in a group of people, typically involving public demonstrations or disorder.” While not every member of our nation feels ‘agitated,’ it is hard to dispute the reality that there is, indeed, a sizable ‘group’ of the population that are ‘dissatisfied’ with the current government. We live in a day where ‘demonstrations’ taking the form of protests and marches fill our screens, and uncivil statements made by news anchors, colleagues, and neighbors fill our ears. With a rapidly growing lack of respect for people’s freedom to hold their own beliefs without scorn or reproach from someone they know, it is no coincidence that Merriam-Webster’s first example of unrest used in a sentence is “the country has experienced years of civil unrest”.

In a time where news stations have become all-out war zones and not even family reunions are safe-spaces, it is very easy to lose sight of optimism. Many people look at a time like this and say, “What could possibly be worse?” You have a once “trusted” friend who, after an election, has become your greatest “enemy” and critic. People in the government have been fired left and right, and the incessant arguing as to whether it was “the best thing” or “the worst thing” seems to follow you wherever you go. People are afraid to say whom they voted for, fearing that someone in their midst will see their beliefs as the work of pure evil.

So why bother? I have talked to many people lately who have told me that incivility, specifically in our news sector, has kept them from paying attention to the news at all. They would rather be kept in the dark from national news than know what is really occurring in our current political atmosphere. They would rather remain in blissful ignorance than feel victimized by their own TVs.

Our democracy is meant to be an inclusive process, something that truly takes all input into account as building blocks to make the United States into the best nation it can be. It is not meant to be the source of great divide, a series of coinciding cleavages that divide issue, after issue into separate channels that alienate entire sectors of our country.

All of this chaos and negative energy sadly commits more people to the “glass half empty club” day by day. People are more frequently asking and telling themselves hopeless utterings such as,

 

“Will things ever get better?”

 

“What has this country come to?”

“There is no hope.”

 

“My vote does not count.”

 

“Why even care about what is going on?”

 

Throughout history, there has always been one thing that saved us from our demise: hope. Hope isn’t just willing or thinking there is a possibility that things can get better. Hope is trudging down that tunnel when you don’t see a light at the end, when you don’t even know if there is an end.

If we all waited until the light at the end of our tunnel became visible, for our north star or our omen to show us that we were on the brink of something good, we would never be where we are today. Some of the greatest feats to be overcome in our history, such as African American rights, were all as a result of blind hope. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, still looked ahead towards a brighter and better future, even when things seemed bleak. When there was no hope, he created hope. When there was not a good future in sight, he willed there to be one.

I use Dr. King as an example for a specific reason. He held another quality that set him apart and made him successful: his civility. One thing that revolutionized Dr. King’s movement towards equality was his methodology. In a time of violence and war, Dr. King led the movement of peaceful protests. His silent sit-ins spoke many more words than one loud or patronizing statement could have ever made. In a time when things were far from civil, Dr. King discovered the large and crucial cooperation between productivity and civility.

Growing up, many people probably heard their moms mutter a thousand times “kill ‘em with kindness.” As a child, and even sometimes as an adult, such words seem dumb or simply untrue. In a moment of debate, it seems much easier and more productive to attack the other side with a low blow and hit them where it hurts. This is the world we live in. People have grown far too comfortable disrespectfully slandering their foe to delegitimize their claims. What these people don’t realize is that in doing so, their own claims lose legitimacy. While they may have a very viable solution to a very important problem, no amount of sweet-talking can cover up and restore the trust of constituencies into their lawmakers if they have seen them act uncivilly to another human being.

The future truly does lie in civility. If we hope to create a brighter and more efficient political future for later generations and ourselves, just as our founding fathers so desired, then we must posses two qualities: hope and civility.

First, we have to believe it can happen. I know it’s very easy to write off a problem policymakers are debating. You can lose hope thinking that  “there is no plausible way to fix this!” Maybe you feel that “the true bad effects of this problem will be long after I’m gone, so why does it matter?” If we just believe that when there is a will to fix a problem then there is a way solve it, we have successfully achieved the first step towards becoming more optimistic.

Secondly, you have to vote. I know this – somewhat – goes hand-in-hand with hope; your vote wouldn’t be truly authentic, if you didn’t hope or believe that one of the propositions could be a viable way to solve a problem. You also have to know that your vote counts. This can also be a hard thing to accept. How could your one, teeny-tiny vote possibly count or make a difference in a pool of millions if you are the only one that really cares about solving the problem and not just fulfilling a role on a partisan team? Just imagine a world in which every person truly believed that change was possible; each of those votes would be quite small, but together, they could make a tidal wave of difference.

Lastly, proceed with civility. There is no doubt we live in a world that constantly turns to violence over peace and incivility over civility. However, if there is anything our great leaders of change have shown us, it is that we are stronger together and stronger when we are kind. Incivility drives wedges through our society that truly keeps us from achieving our full potential. It prevents us from having an open mind to all ideas, maybe even the one that just may be the very change needed to make our world a better place.

 

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.

~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Let’s Play Ball!

A Fictional Adaptation of Tribalism in Politics in the United States

by Mea Ayers

 

The bets are in. The Facebook posts are up, and the flags are out, lining the front yards. This is the day everyone has been waiting for. Countless hours of preparation and training paired with many days on the road have led to this built-up moment. First, there were the trials. Then, the lineup was released, and fans from every crevice of the nation – city and country, coastal and inland – began to anticipate what the future months would hold. Now, it’s here. The time has finally come! This is a day that will bring a great joy to many and a disappointing upset to an equal amount. This is the first day of the World Series… through the eyes Jenna and Todd Harrington.

***

“Aha!”

When she finally finds the mustard in the back corner of her fridge, Jenna looks down at her phone and realizes that fifteen minutes have passed. Fifteen minutes…

“It’s 12:07! The Party has already started!”

What could possibly be a better way to meet all your new neighbors than to host a pre-game barbecue? As she approaches the front door, Jenna sees through the window a crowd huddled around her husband in the front yard. She assumes the hot dogs must have been a hit!

She straightens her indigo sundress before opening the front door to make her way to the table covered in hotdogs. New York Yankees flags clad her front yard filled with guests. Could this day be more perfect? However, the closer she gets to the crowd, the more she begins to realize that the faces of her neighbors seem…far from pleasant.

That’s not casual conversing. No, that’s shouting! A crowd of angry neighbors is screaming. To whom and for what reason she does not know.

“Todd! What on earth is going on here?” She shouts.

It looks as if the hate is directed towards her husband, but she realizes he’s not the other person yelling. It’s the tall, young guy who lives on the corner lot in the small, red brick house. What’s his name? Joe, Jim, Justin? It’s something with a J, she thinks. She takes a look at the crowd and notices a color trend. Shades of red pop out in a broad range of attire from subtle red buttons to full red tracksuits and painted faces.

For the first time today, she takes a real look around her street. Somehow, she failed to realize that their flag is the only blue flag that lines the street – theirs, and the guy who lives on the corner, the guy who is yelling,

“You can’t rip down their flag! They have a right to have it there.” The man from the corner house shouts.

A middle aged man in a red jersey cackles before responding. “Right? Wow Jamie. You’re one to talk!”

A younger man wearing a ridiculous red morph suit pipes up. “The last thing we need is another person in the neighborhood supporting that team. One is already more than enough to handle.”

Laughs rattle throughout the crowd before the morph suit man’s wife takes the stage. “Yeah, Jamie. Everybody knows the Red Sox are the leading team around here. Their stats are good. Plus, they haven’t had the slip-ups your team has had. Need I mention the pitching scandal?”

“They never found any proof!” Jamie screams.

“Oh please. Everyone knows they’re to blame! I don’t care if there is proof. I don’t care if there isn’t proof. They should definitely be kicked out of the MLB!” The woman responds.

Jenna interjects. “Does anyone want a hot do—“

“WHY DON’T YOU JUST SHUT THE HELL UP Marsha.” Jamie interrupts. “Everyone knows you only spit back out the bullshit your husband feeds you. And he’s an oaf, for crying out loud. Everything he spouts is garbage anyway!”

“OH REALLY! I’m spitting up bullshit now am I. Why don’t I just go ahead and spit up some more!” Marsha takes a step forward and spits in Jamie’s face.

Jamie, seething, wipes his face with one hand and clenches the other into a fist. For a second, it looks to Jenna as if he is actually about to punch Marsha in the face. Feeling that it’s about high time to end this very… unpleasant soiree, Todd steps forward. “You know what, party’s over. Why don’t we all go back to our houses and enjoy the game there? Everyone can grab a hotdog to go. I think this way, things will be more…pleasant.”

The man in the morph suit grabs a hot dog, and proceeds to walk over towards Jamie to pat him on the back. “Have fun!” He says with a smirk. “Enjoy watching your team lose.”

“I’d rather see the whole stadium burn down than watch the Red Sox win. So you better hope they don’t or I’m going to raise hell!”
Dumbfounded by what they just witnessed, Todd and Jenna hastily grab their flag and tins of food and hurry inside. While Jenna prepares two places at the kitchen table, Todd flashes on the TV. A pack of men painted completely blue flash up on the screen

“The Red Sox Suck!” A man on the TV shouts.

Todd flashes the TV back off and makes his way over to the kitchen table. He and his wife sit across from each other, in silence, eating cold hot dogs.

Breaking the silence, Jenna finally speaks up. “I really don’t know what has become of this country.”

***

 

Visualize the two largest rival teams of any sport you can think of. Now, think about those two friends you know that if left in a room to discuss their teams together, the outcome would be a shouting match or brawl. This event is not so unique. Similar acts of uncivility occur all throughout the country between countless teams and people from all walks of life. Kids in middle school all the way up through senior citizens join in on the fight.

Now, pretend that the two “teams” you are visualizing are no longer for baseball, but for political parties instead. Visualize the banners decorating front yards as campaign signs and not flags. The analogy may be unconventional…but it works. We live in a tumultuous time for American politics, a time where people raise their voices and lose their civility. What does it say about our political culture that we can compare our politics to a temporarily consequential sports championship?

Many people can probably visualize a recent instance when a pleasant time was ruined by a political argument. Maybe you were having dinner at the in-laws’, travelling with your friends from the other side of the country, or just enjoying a street barbecue with your neighbors; maybe you didn’t physically witness this uncivility in person but were horrified by something remarked by a news anchor, pop-culture figure, or radio show host. Political incivility has no gender, no age, and no political alignment.

As social beings, we naturally gravitate towards groups, our “tribes” so to speak. It is very easy for us to associate with like-minded human beings, sharing in ideas and belief systems. It is also just as easy to lose sight of respect and bash those with beliefs contrary to our own. According to Psychology Today, this form tribalism in politics causes us to lose our ability to “admit the other side has a good idea because of our own egos, especially if we have publically criticized the other side and rallied for our side.”

While we may associate exclusively with groups that share our belief systems, let us not forget the tribe we are all a part of: The United States. It is OK to debate with others and perfectly fine to agree to disagree. However, when we value the well-being of our personal tribe over the well-being of the country as a whole, that is when we lose our civility. Civility demands, by name, a certain level of courtesy and politeness; it does not demand that we agree with others, but that we respect them and their well-being. When we remark in a manner such as the statement “I’d rather see the whole stadium burn down than watch the Red Sox win,” we are not only being uncivil to others, but to ourselves. We are all part of the “arena” that is this country, and we owe it to the common good of our national tribe to practice civility towards the people we share our home land with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News”: A Testament to the Growing Unawareness and Incivility of American Voters

Mea Ayers is a high school senior from Houston, Texas who is serving as a guest blogger for the Institute this summer.

In today’s climate, entertainment opportunities seem endless. With bottomless content sources such as Youtube, Netflix, Yahoo, Hulu, and Google widely available to the public, one would think that global and political awareness would increase, right? While Americans are, no doubt, becoming more aware of some events, an online survey from Statista illustrates that only 37% of Americans utilize their internet access to “look for news and information about politics.”

In contrast, many of the nation’s younger citizens appear to occupy their screen time surfing the vast streaming sites that offer whole seasons of kitschy reality shows, the latest and greatest movies, and quarter-hour-long skits referred to as “vlogs.” While many of these videos offer nothing more than a good laugh, a new binge, or a calming antidote to a long day, some offer as many striking yet true insights as laughs. One comedic sketch periodically put on by the late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel is both humorous and alarming: it exposes the very nature of some of the voters that make up our democracy.

“Lie Witness News” sketches are comprised of two parts: one seemingly innocent yet absurdly false question and a group of American interviewees randomly selected off the streets of L.A. According to Time, Kimmel “repeatedly [gets an] unsuspecting passerby to reveal that they may not be as informed on a variety of topics as they think.” Topics range from Beauty Products to the Fourth of July all the way up through Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The objective of the game is simple: ask the general population about large (and untrue) current events, seeing how much they think they know.

With a title like “Lie Witness News,” one can only anticipate the embarrassing outcome of asking the public if they have heard about “the twitter war between Donald Trump and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” People offered input over the “controversy” of Dr. King failing to show up to President Trump’s Inauguration (an impossible feat) as well as Dr. King’s “Time on the ‘Celebrity Apprentice’” (simply untrue). Interviewed Americans were all too quick to comment on a modern social media fight that supposedly took place between the President of the United States and a revolutionary historical figure… who was assassinated during the 1960s.

Interview candidates also had interesting commentary on President Obama’s “planned 4th of July confederate flag burning with the last surviving Tuskegee Airman and the Wu Tang Clan.” One interviewee responded that he is “a little” excited and “will” be watching the supposed flag burning, while another reports that he has not only been discussing these 4th of July related “issues” with his friends, but “heard about [them] a month ago.”

While such responses from the public seem humorous on the surface, as one couldn’t possibly believe the California Governor decided to “reschedule the 4th of July to February,” the confidence of the public in their absurd answers proves slightly frightening in a nation that runs off of the rules of democracy and the expectation that every member of society adequately educate themselves on the local and federal political atmosphere.

Despite the obvious conflict of the growing unawareness of the American people presented by this seemingly harmless skit, another problem lies just beneath the surface. Interviewed candidates that chimed in on the debates of these supposed “incidents” were all too quick to take a side. When asked something slightly more important, such as “should Hillary Clinton be impeached,” each person fired back quickly with a definite side and slander on hand, despite that Hillary Clinton is not, in fact, the President.

One interviewee stated on Hillary Clinton’s Impeachment that “she should definitely be out.” When asked “on what crimes,” the same person responded with “I’m not a political person at all, so I really have no clue.” Such a response only highlights the tendency of Americans to polarize, whether they are informed or uninformed, simply for the sake of taking a side. Tendencies and aggression such as these are no doubt major factors that are contributing to the brutal political climate we live in today.

Perhaps the most striking information gathered from the last interviewee’s commentary is that they are “not a political person.” Arguably the main conflict confronting our American political culture today is that there are millions of people who feel they are “not political people” who still tightly grasp onto their partisan ideals. By adopting this belief about themselves, these people give themselves the false reassurance that they don’t need to actually carry out the procedures that every American should when it comes to politics.

While the future of our government is uncertain, one thing is for sure: we are all political people, whether we know it or not. By definition, a democracy is a political system involving a consensus by the whole population. Therefore, if it is a political institution involving everybody, then every person is a “political person.”

Proper participation in democracy calls us to not only actively participate (vote!), but to also use our newly abundant resources to do our research. It is all too easy to follow the ideals of our persuasive neighbors or go into a local election voting a straight ballot. Many would read these warning signs as early indications of an unsalvageable ship, something that is too far-gone and not worth our time. However, if “Lie Witness News” has shown us anything optimistic, it is that we do, indeed, have more access than ever to information with streaming websites and databases. Therefore we owe it to ourselves and our country to carve out a little time and do our research before making another comment on any current event. To us, it may only seem like a small task with a small return; however we will, with civility, be changing our political culture, one less lie at a time.

 

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.

Pomegranates for Sale (A Work of Fiction)

sarah-tuttle-singer-guest-blogSarah Tuttle-Singer is an LA expat growing roots in Israel where she lives with her two kids in a small village with a breathtaking view of rolling fields and endless sky. Sarah is a Contributing Editor at Kveller.com, the New Media Editor at The Times of Israel, and has written for several sites including The Times of Israel, Scary Mommy, Hevria, TIME.com, Jezebel, and Ladies Home Journal.

“You’re so lucky I am here to guide you, to protect you in this part of the city,” her friend had told her ten seasons past, while they walked through a wind-rubbed Muslim Quarter deep into December.

He said this when she pointed to words in Arabic written in blood-red paint, the letters drip-dried over old stone. “In this part of town, you never know,” he continued, “if Hamas or Islamic Jihad or even a salafi, perhaps, is close by and writing on walls.”

“What does it say?” she asked, as she glanced over each shoulder, right and left, afraid.

“It says Death to the Jews,” he replied. “But don’t be afraid. You’re with me and I will tell you everything you need to know to be safe.”

And small in the shadow of the stone and of the man who knew so much about this place, she believed, and would never pass that way again.

“We can’t go this way,” she would then say to others as the months passed into two years. “There’s a sign that says Death to the Jews. So it surely isn’t safe along this road.”

But then she learned the letters for herself, the dips and bends of the Arabic script carved in buildings and written on signs. She learned the names aren’t so different, its elementary, really : Alif Ba, (like Alef Bet).

Through rockets falling and a war, she traced her fingers line by line.

And she learned to say hello in this language, too, and how to get beyond the price of pita, or black coffee, until she forgot to be afraid and ended up again in that same bend of alley space beside that writing, and startled, she looked up:

The words in red had not faded in the least.

Still sanguine stark on stone, as when she had passed them on that winter day ten seasons before.

But all alone and unafraid, she read them for herself this time:

“Five shekels a kilogram. Pomegranates for sale.”

And she laughed until the tears came, at the sweetness she had missed.

This story is a work of fiction – it didn’t happen, but it could. So much of the history and the politics of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is shaped by fear — some real, yes… But some imagined. And until both sides learn the language of the other, we cannot hope to be on the same page.

For more on language as dividers in conflict, please read:

Posts by guest authors reflect their own views and opinions, and not necessarily the views and opinions of the Institute for Civility in Government.

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.

Support Your Elected Officials, Attend a Government Meeting

Anita Stech is an Institute member and the owner of Cut Loose Creations, a company that turns old tee shirts into stylish clothes and accessories.  In 2011, she participated in the Institute’s Civility Workshop held in Duluth, MN.  And as a member of the Pilgrim Congregational Church Social Justice Ministry, she has worked with the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation’s “Speak Your Peace” initiative to create “Civility Certified” community forums and debates.

Every once in a while I cross paths with a woman I supported in a recent local election. Now an elected local official, she tells me how much work there is to the job. For every government meeting, council or committee, she receives and reads pages and pages of background material. She gets multiple contacts each day from constituents and those wishing to influence her thoughts and votes on various issues. She researches issues and city actions. We discuss how much more there is to serving in office than running to serve, and I thank her for her work.

The election cycles never seem to end. The constant ads and solicitations unfortunately draw attention to the contests rather than the work our elected officials have been selected to do. Even with a four year term, thinking of how to conduct and fund the next election is always in the back of an official’s mind.

There have been some pretty harsh attacks on our local officials lately. School board meetings have drawn a crowd of people who have not been shy in vocally criticizing the members, personal attacks and threats included; a movement is afoot to recall a city councilor. Even civility itself, when under discussion at a school board meeting, was attacked as a “sham” and a “joke” by a sitting school board member.

This may be “newsworthy” stuff, but it draws attention from the work of governing. And governing is what is important.

So here is a thought for those of us who vote: attend a local government meeting – city council, school board, or county commission.

Attend the government meeting not because you want something from the councilors, board members, or commissioners, but to simply show support for the work we as a community have asked them to do.

And attend the meetings to learn more about how things work. Moving an idea from your head to something a city, county, or school board can consider takes a lot of work. Ask staff how a proposed idea might move through the system.

Any elected official knows that part of the job is to listen to everyone – the noisy ones included. But it might be nice to be reminded every once in a while that there are lots of others who are interested in the work of governing, and who appreciate those who work so hard to be part of a governing body that fixes streets, educates students and takes care of those in need.

Be that reminder. Attend a government meeting.

Note: to learn the time and location of government meetings in your area, check the “Government” section in your telephone book, or search the web for the town, county, or school board name. For example: “Duluth Minnesota City Council”.

Beyond Convicted Civility

John Backman is a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, who has written extensively on topics in Christian spirituality, including contemplative practice and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012), and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications, progressive and conservative. John currently serves on the board of directors for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.

Is convicted civility the best we can do?

Even asking the question seems petulant — like scolding a friend who traded in her gas guzzler for a Prius. After all, she could have bought an electric car, right? Many of us have no patience for such quibbling over degrees of self-improvement, and with good reason.

Convicted civility is our Prius. Its champions include two celebrated intellects in U.S. seminaries: Lutheran scholar Martin Marty and evangelical thinker Richard Mouw. Indeed, Marty’s quote in the 1990s both described the landscape for convicted civility and hinted at its definition: “People who have strong convictions these days aren’t very civil, and people who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. What we need is ‘convicted civility.'”

On one side, convicted civility asks those of us with strong convictions to honor all others, seek their well-being, and hear their deepest convictions, particularly when we disagree. On the other side, convicted civility calls on “nice people,” those who “go along to get along,” to give voice to what they hold dear. In this way, any dialogue reaps the benefit of their voices when their voices have not been heard before.

Clearly, convicted civility addresses a crying need in our public square. Just as important, it answers the criticism of civility as too polite to correct injustice, or not adversarial enough to contribute the conflicting ideas that lead to better decisions. That’s where the convictions come in: they are not silenced or glossed over, but rather injected — sometimes boldly — into the general conversation, allowing them to make their full impact without excessive rancor or rudeness.

So convicted civility is the answer then, right? Not entirely. Even while touting it, we can make a case for moving beyond it — for jumping from the Prius to the electric car, if you will. The reason is simple: The limitation of convicted civility is that it leaves us in our convictions.

Yes, convictions can be good in themselves. They come to us from a lifetime’s worth of difficult lessons, intellectual challenge, and painstaking observation. In many cases, those hard-won convictions are precisely the most valuable thing we have to contribute to the betterment of the world. By ignoring them entirely, we hold back something essential to civil dialogue. In the process, we limit the power of dialogue to do what it does so well: bridge divides, build relationships, help us grow in wisdom, forge solutions to difficult issues.

We also limit the power of dialogue when we hold our convictions with unshakable certainty.

Here’s why. Each of us, in the grand scheme of things, can know next to nothing with any certainty whatever. What we “knew” about, for instance, the nutritional value of eggs is not what we know today. Two centuries ago, many religionists “knew” all about the blessings of slavery; no conscientious believer ascribes to that “knowledge” today.

Herein lies the supreme value of civil dialogue. When I realize how much I don’t know, it shows me that I need what you know. That drives me into dialogue with you to get closer to understanding the reality behind the issue at hand — and to understanding one another.

But when part of me is certain about my convictions, unwilling to relax my grip, I am detracting from my ability to listen openheartedly. Just as important, I am denying myself access to the deeper understanding of my convictions that may come in light of what you are saying. I even limit where the conversation might go, because my convictions may require me to silence you with “I can’t go there.”

A better solution, I think, is to hold our convictions, but hold them lightly — even suspending them for the brief time we’re listening to the other. This enables two things. First, with our convictions temporarily not in the picture, we can devote our whole hearts and our full attention to our dialogue partner. Second, it allows our partner’s convictions to interact with our own. Adding this openhearted exposure to convictions outside ourselves can add depth and nuance to our own convictions.

Many years ago, when I ascribed to a fundamentalist version of Christianity, I happened to drive two hours to a business appointment with a certified astrologer. My faith was clear on the evils of astrology. So when she started talking about her practice, I had a choice: I could leave the filter of my convictions in place, searching for holes in her argument, or I could lay the filter aside.

By choosing the second course, I learned so much more than I would have otherwise. She told me about the vast gulf between serious astrology and the tabloid version, the practical aims and goals of the profession, and other things that, together, painted a portrait of an alternative worldview that reasonable people could hold.

Did I throw my convictions to the four winds? No. Did laying them aside temporarily add nuance to my beliefs? Oh yes: as a result, the conversation not only dispelled my fear of astrology, but more broadly prepared me to approach other belief systems — and embrace their practitioners — with curiosity and welcome. For the development of my faith at that time, this was a watershed.

Convicted civility holds so much potential for improving the plight of our public square. It does not have to be the last word, however. Holding our convictions lightly, recognizing how much we don’t know, can open our hearts to a deeper practice of civility: the kind that welcomes all with open arms.

The Government Shutdown on the Ground

The Government Shutdown on the GroundKimberly Glaus Läte is a current member and past board member of the Institute for Civility in Government. She works at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, TX, leading the team that produces the American portion of the flight food for the International Space Station, as well as the food science and engineering staff that develop flight food systems for interplanetary travel. Kimberly has been active in non-profit organizations focusing on hunger relief. And she currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston, teaching a graduate level course in non-profit management.

My name is Kimberly, and I live and work in the community around Johnson Space Center near Houston, TX. I am not a direct government employee, I work for a nationally known aerospace/defense contractor. At Johnson Space Center, I manage the team of folks who prepare, package, and stow containers of food which are then packed into a variety of flight vehicles and delivered to the International Space Station. My team feeds the astronauts, and not just the US astronauts, either. All the food on the ISS is shared between cosmonauts, European, Japanese, Canadian, and US crewmembers.

I have a really cool job and I am grateful every day that our nation supports this kind of exploration, and not just because it keeps me employed. The desire to explore and increase our knowledge of what exists beyond the horizon is a universal human trait. But that is a story for another day!

In the week leading up to October 1, the management teams of the various government contractors working in and around Johnson Space Center provided information to employees about who would work during the shutdown, who could work at home via telecommuting, who would continue to work on-site at JSC, and who would be unable to work. Some companies provided information to team members about applying for unemployment during the shutdown, and others required employees to use vacation and other paid leave.

My team was “excepted”; our work was considered “critical” to the International Space Station, so we continued to report to work.

This was pretty eerie – coming to work at a government facility that was basically closed! On the positive side, parking was great, as there was no competition for close parking spots. Our building continued to have lights and air conditioning, so we reported to work and tried to behave as though everything was normal. We all knew we were the lucky ones; we were continuing to get paid without having to use vacation, or apply for unemployment.

As the furlough went into a second and then a third week, the funding for our contract began to run out and contingency plans had to be considered. How many people did we really need to continue to meet our customers’ requirements for food deliveries? Could we limp along with half our staff until the civil servants returned and funding was appropriated?

Thankfully, the furlough ended two days before we were scheduled to implement a reduced staffing plan. It’s hard to look at your team and try to figure out who should continue to work a full schedule and who needs to be cut back to half time. I’ll bet none of our elected representatives have ever had to tell a single mother that her hours were being cut because the funding for her work is being held hostage to political agendas and aspirations.

During the third week of the shutdown, my daughter and I met for lunch at a local restaurant. After we’d placed our order, I asked my daughter to look around the restaurant and tell me what she observed.  She said: There seem to be a lot of older people here.

This was because on a workday, the restaurant is usually filled to capacity with middle-aged workers from JSC, which is located just a few blocks away.

How does the restaurant look different compared to the other times we’ve been here? I continued.

Well, we parked right up front, and there don’t seem to be very many people in here. The proverbial light suddenly came on for my daughter, and the awareness of what was happening registered in her face.

What you are seeing is the direct impact of the government shutdown.

On the way out, I noticed the owner of the restaurant was working the cash register. Has business been pretty slow? I asked. He smiled thinly and said that it had. I told him we had enjoyed our meal and that we all hoped that the shutdown would end soon.

This was the same story for all the local restaurants – every place I visited during the three weeks the government shutdown was in effect was virtually empty at lunchtime, which is the “meat and potatoes” of their business, so to speak.

I am happy for my civil service counterparts, that they are receiving back pay for the period of the shutdown. I am sad for all the lost wages, vacation time, and lost revenue that other workers and local businesses experienced that will not be reimbursed. And I am disappointed in our government leaders, that they have been willing to play politics with the livelihood of people, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck.

I wish I had something profound or even “blog-worthy” to say about this situation, but I don’t. I’m just sad, disappointed, and, at times even angry that our publicly elected officials let things come to this.

Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, you’re probably thinking: so what are you going to do, to translate those sad / disappointed / angry feelings into action? I’m going to write to my publically elected officials and share with them what I’ve shared with you. If we don’t share what we know with our elected officials, modeling the civility we expect them to have, they can’t represent us very effectively.

I invite you to do the same.