Is There a Road Back to Civility?


If we’ve learned nothing else from the 2016 Presidential election, we should now understand how talented and creative Americans are at insults, put-downs, spinning truth, ridicule, threats, disseminating falsehoods, false equivalencies, and hyperbolic negativism.  And understand—especially those of you who might assume I’ll be directing this sermon primarily to one side of the political spectrum—this was one, if the only, area where bipartisanship was always on display.  Trump, Clinton, Obama, Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, Coastal Residents, Middle-American Folks, City Dwellers, and Rural Denizens would be just a few of the many groups targeted for attack; whether it be ridicule, ad hominem fallacies, name-calling, mocking meme, or flat out fabrications, all groups got their share of abuse.  And I haven’t even brought up race, religion, economic status, sexual orientation, or gender.  I know that historians can find many examples of political campaigns which descended to similar depths from our past, but I find that pretty small consolation.  Am I really supposed to feel better about our political/social environment because it’s no worse than how it was during the Lincoln vs. Douglas campaign of 1860, a time in America when it was still legal for people to own other human beings?  Somehow, I can’t take much solace in that; shouldn’t we be making at least as much progress in political dialogue as we have on slavery?  I mean, think how abhorrent it is now to accept the reality of slave owners.  Yet, we should be fine with our current nastiness since it’s probably no worse than pre-Civil War America, some 150 years ago.  Surely we can aspire to better than that.

And that’s what’s been bugging me lately:  How can we ever move forward from the various positions we’ve staked out when we continually reinforce our defenses with hatred for and viciousness toward those with whom we disagree?  Consider these two memes from our most recent election:  “Hillary Clinton 2016 because what America needs is a vindictive old rich lady with a penchant for lying, alcohol problems, a philandering husband, and a tangled heap of corpses behind her;” and this one about Trump: “I’m not racist; I just hate non-whites, liberals, immigrants, gays, foreigners, the mentally challenged, and those Muslims.”  Of course there are many others, and we won’t digress over whose insults are closest to reality when we have so many important issues which require our ability to come together to find the most reasonable solution with which the majority of us can live.  No, that standard—“most reasonable solution”—does not lend itself to the hyperbole of one group graphically describing the horrors of altering their position one iota while the other is stereotyping as stupid/moronic/traitorous/ignorant anyone who disagrees with anything they’ve proposed.  Reaching a mutually acceptable compromise is at the heart of “the art of the deal,” as those who have ever negotiated with others who fundamentally disagreed with their positions can tell you.

I represented a few hundred teachers several times in contract negotiations with school board members, administrators, and labor lawyers. (No, it wasn’t just me; we had a team of teachers for all sessions and even an Illinois Education Association full-time Uni-Serv Director for two of the nine contracts I bargained.)  And I was never completely satisfied with the contracts we finally agreed upon, just as those on the other side of the table never felt like they got 100% of what they wanted either.  But that wasn’t anyone’s ultimate expectation from the outset.  Whenever you begin discussions about things which involve money, decision-making power, and/or working conditions; you can be sure those who have the most power will consider status quo a fine way to continue, while huge concessions will be sought by those who see current conditions/resources as unfairly administered/distributed.  How close to each side’s goal the final deal seems determines how good they feel about it.  But, an experienced negotiator can tell you that if one side is seen to have won a significant advantage over the other, you can be certain the next time the two groups sit down to bargain, the “losing” side will be determined to earn some face back for the previous poorly perceived outcome.

So there is a certain gamesmanship, basic vocabulary, and etiquette to how you speak about agreements and the other side before you start, during the process, and especially once a settlement has been reached:  Gloating or complaining are seen as poor form; you had plenty of time to do that in private when you were insisting that your proposals for how things should be changed were superior and necessary when compared to the foolish rantings of the other side.  But once you’ve presented your case as best you can and lectured on how incredibly awful the world would be should the other side’s alternative reality come to fruition, you then move to the second phase of negotiations—what’s it really gonna take to get this done?  In the final stage, when you’ve compromised to reach a tentative agreement, you then praise both the deal and your counterparts for helping everyone come to that “most reasonable solution” possible.

Of course that’s not how either side really sees it; we’re not talking about a perfect, ideal system in which no hypocrisy exists:  You can be sure that my team and I had plenty of nasty things to say about the other side (only among ourselves)—petty, personal, mean things which helped us to process the gall of having to accept less than we felt we should.  My guess is that my name inspired more than a few colorful descriptions by my opponents who had to put up with my brilliant oration during some of our lengthy sessions.  But if the overall goal is to create something all can live with, when the war is over and a pact has been agreed to, you move on; you shelve all your personal baggage from dealing with other human beings with whom you disagreed for several months.  And your praise for their work need not be totally hypocritical or untrue despite the heat of previous battles: They had to sit through the same sessions you did, and labored honestly (assuming they did) for what they thought was best.  You might not like some of their tactics—not to mention personal quirks, vocal mannerisms, wardrobe choices, or attitudes—but for the sake of progress, you stow all the meaningless, subjective issues in order to move forward.

But that’s certainly not what’s currently happening.  Every turn of events is trumpeted as earth-shattering and leads to condemnations from those rooting for failure and lies from those on whom the events reflect poorly.  From Russia to climate change to health care to gun background checks to Medicare cuts to Republican Senators secretly crafting legislation to foreign relations to travel bans to fake news to our current flavor of the week (with the Trump administration, that seems more like “crisis of the second”), we all scramble to line up dutifully in our outrage or rationalization based on which view we support.  It’s no longer the case that everyone admits there’s a problem and then cooperates to figure out a way to address it that doesn’t totally alienate or totally please anyone—what kind of compromising sell-outs would ever allow some “half” measure to trump their perfect views?  And that’s where we are; few seem able to let go of political affiliations in order to get things done, even if the things are only small, incremental steps which only begin to nibble at the edges of the problem. We personalize and demonize to the point where our atmosphere is so poisoned that breathing it in pushes mentally ill individuals to turn a softball field into a target range.

That awful outcome is thankfully still relatively rare and we’ll never be sure how much our contentious, partisan bickering contributed to any one deranged person’s actions, but it certainly doesn’t help.  And even more importantly, our vindictive, personality-driven sniping has created a system where reasons and truths don’t matter nearly as much as getting a win for our side.  How else can you explain so many people voting against their interests for those whose chief agenda is shrinking governmental help for those who really need it in order to make the rich richer?  How else can you explain so many rejecting election results with “He’s not my President” comments before the inauguration even took place, not to mention belittling the intelligence of anyone so stupid as to vote for 45?

This really isn’t about how much you abhor Trump or despise Pelosi or are disgusted by Ryan or hate listening to Schumer or want to scream at McConnell or would love to tell off Warren.  I do understand the negative emotions which certain voices and appearances can trigger regardless of the content of what the person says—I still have nightmares about the patronizing, condescending lectures one lawyer used by our school board for many years would give us ignorant, misguided teachers about how broke the district was (while he was earning some $250 an hour, by the way) during negotiation sessions.  But part of maturity and experience is the ability to get past all the trivial irritations to reach a better reality.  And reality is the key word here:  The idealistic fantasies demagogues evoke will definitely appeal to our ids and stir us to anger and mistrust of those who disagree with our fearless leader’s vision, but just like our dreams of winning the lottery, reality will insist on dragging those dreams back to our actual financial condition.

There’s no easy answer to this problem; once our irrational, fearful, hateful emotions have been tapped, it’s very hard not to overreact when those buttons are pushed.  For me, anything coming from Ryan or McConnell (or Lord help us all, Kellyanne) trigger my dark side and make it hard even to listen to them, much less trying to glean something positive from their words.  We all need some release for our feelings so that we can sift through our prejudices and Pavlovian training in order to find common ground on which we can build something, anything, which can inch our country in a positive direction.  Yes, it will still gall me every time Trump utters something hypocritical or the opposite of what he promised mere months ago to say nothing about the constant lying, but ranting about what a buffoon he is will not accomplish anything except to give me a fleeting, empty sense of satisfaction.

I certainly do appreciate Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, and Steven Colbert (I’m so happy he’s begun incorporating more of his Colbert Report’s sharpness into his monologues) for providing me with many opportunities to keep calm despite Jeffery Lord’s constant appearances on news shows—and I know that some of you feel the same way every time Bernie comes on.  Being able to laugh about it helps some, but we’ve got to access our logical Spock-ian sides when it comes to the issues we need to address.  You might poo-poo my concerns about the environment, but can’t we at least agree that renewable energy industries could be a great source of economic activity?  Everybody knows that good-paying jobs lead to a thriving middle class which solves a myriad of our social ills.  And I have to accept my goal that nobody but the police and military have guns—Use a camera to shoot animals, or if you must, at least make it harder by using a bow and arrow!—is not going to happen any time soon, but that doesn’t mean that gun owners can’t agree that background checks, waiting periods, and certain restrictions on devastating weapons make sense.  Oh, and let’s throw in bringing guns to bars and schools; I taught for 33 years, and the thought that the school was full of packing teachers as we went over math problems and had discussions on Shakespeare would definitely not have made me feel safer.  And do I really have to point out how counterintuitive it is to mix alcohol and weapons?

I’m not hopeful we can make any real progress in this area soon.  The leader of our country finally admitted there was Russian interference in our election only to blame Obama for not doing enough to solve the crisis he has been claiming for months was a hoax and a witch hunt.  Meanwhile, at #trumpcare, a poster writes, “Karma’s a bitch… the racist Trump supporters who will die if #Trumpcare is passed, will have paid the ultimate price for their stupidity.”  This could take a while, but at some point we all need to give civility and compromise a try.


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