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The Struggle For Civil Discourse

How I'm changing up my New Year's Resolution while walking into an election year.

For this New Year, I’m changing up my usual resolutions.  Instead of health or finances, I’m choosing to focus on civil discourse.

According to Weber Shandwick’s Civility in America Survey, 75% of Americans surveyed in December of 2016 believed that incivility in American had risen to crisis levels.  They also discovered that on average Americans experience 6.7 instances of incivility in a 7-day week – that’s incivility on a nearly daily basis.  Incivility can look like rude behavior while driving, trolling while online, rude or disrespectful behavior while at work, school, in the neighborhood, on public transportation, in a house of worship, or at social or political events.  Most surveyed believed this incivility leads to initimidation, threats, harassment, discrimination, violence, and cyberbullying.

79% of Americans said that uncivil comments by political leaders encourages greater incivility in society.  And although some media outlets blame President Trump specifically, the fact is that constructive dialogue in politics had already been eroding for a long time: The 2016 election and what we’ve seen since has accelerated the arrival of an increasingly troubling era of political discourse. 

Most people seem to blame others for this increase in incivility, rarely themselves.  But I have to admit, that as civility declined at the national level, I felt my own ability to engage productively in conversation decline as well. 

At young ages, we all learn how to argue both sides of a controversial issue, how to listen to others’ points of view, and how to engage with evidence and facts and open-mindedness that lead to greater understanding of our own beliefs about an issue.  In recent years this has become a challenge for me.  Many of my conversations devolve into passionate, ill-formed yelling matches, or worse, end in icy silence.

I work with young adults and families living in extreme poverty and experiencing homelessness. Many are seriously and personally impacted by the issues we are fighting about as a nation.  Every day I see things that horrify me – young adults who have been deported since DACA was ended, colleagues overwhelmed by how to care for children separated from their families at the border, single mothers unable to earn a living wage and afford the cost of childcare, lack of equity and histories of discrimination in housing policies and more. 

So, when issues of immigration, discrimination and poverty come up with my friends and family, I am deeply, emotionally invested.  The issues we discuss have real names and faces attached to them.  For me,  arguments can begin to feel like a fight for life or death.  Along the way, I realized that facts and figures weren’t effectively getting my point across.  I tried sharing personal experiences and anecdotes from people I met, but that wasn’t working either.  My fight or flight instincts would kick in, and I’d get angry with my loved ones for not coming over to my side.  It’s easy to forget that they don’t hold the same experiences and stories as me – their context for the conversation is very different. 

Our inability to have conversations assures that we all lose – none of us will ever be able to understand the other’s point of view.  So this year, I’m resolving to restore civil discourse in my own small way. 

But how?

How do we begin to patch up the rifts that exist among us?  How do we engage with each other in meaningful ways while not feeling like we are compromising on our strongly-held beliefs?  No matter which side of the aisle we fall on, it’s clear that we can’t continue on in this way and allow incivility to become our new normal in America. 

Although it’s challenging, I’m committing myself to re-learning how to have constructive dialogue over the course of this next election year.

My resolution: I will engage in civil discourse by asking challenging questions, rather than assuming negative intent.  I will make sure that I am well read and informed on topics that are meaningful to me, and my arguments will be based in facts and truth.  And if I see instances of incivility in my daily life, I will do the difficult and kind thing by speaking out against it.

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