Thursday, June 28, 2018

The "C" Word

When I was a kid, my mom and my adult sisters fought a lot--and very loudly. Their frequent shouting matches were an ongoing source of stress for me. I hated it so much that by the time I was nine or ten, I started mediating their fights, doing my best to calmly explain each of their perspectives to the other in an attempt to find a place of mutual understanding and, most importantly to me, peace and quiet. I became known as the peacemaker in my family. At the time I took pride in this role and the compliments I received for my mediation skills. Looking back now, I find it a little troubling that my mother allowed this weight to be put on such a young child's shoulders, but it is what it is and I am who I am in part because of those experiences.

Lately, being on social media feels like living in that home, where people are constantly yelling at each other and I just really want everyone to get along and be nice. And by "lately," I mean for as long as the internet has existed. I don't claim innocence here; 2008, when I'd just moved to California and Prop 8 was on the ballot, was a particularly low point for me as far as online civility goes. Even before that, I had my fair share of virtual battles with both friends and strangers I disagreed with. Perhaps because of the conflict-related trauma I'd felt as a child, each new online confrontation produced an intense physical reaction in me, where my body would tremble as if I were dying of hypothermia, regardless of the temperature. I would dread checking my email to find a notification of another comment in an ongoing argument, but keep checking anyway, out of some masochistic compulsion.

In the past ten years I've developed coping strategies to deal with conflict both online and in real life while keeping my emotional health intact, because the reality is that conflict is part of living with other people, and avoiding it often leads to more problems. In the case of online conflict, I continue to find value in engaging with people I disagree with, despite the widely-held belief that there's no point in discussing controversial issues online because no one ever changes their mind anyway. I used to share this belief, but I realized a few years ago that on several occasions I've argued with someone online and absolutely refused to give them any ground, only to find myself weeks, months, or years later recalling their words and, removed from the heat of the moment, recognizing that they maybe kind of had a point. And if I do that, surely I'm not the only one? Besides, as I said in my little allegory the other day, the alternative is not talking to each other, and I don't think that's going to solve any problems.

If anything, the solution to our problems is talking to each other more. Social media makes it all too easy for us to unfollow or unfriend those we disagree with, those whose opinions we find repulsive, and as a result those people become more and more "other" to us, to the point where they're barely human. Our congress (speaking for the United States here because I'm not as familiar with politics elsewhere) doesn't get anything done because the two sides just yell at each other and no one is willing to listen. Sadly, this is a case where our representatives are actually doing a good job of representing us; if we can't talk to each other civilly, how do we expect them to?

Oh, crap. I said the "C" word. Civility is not a popular concept among my fellow liberals lately. And I get it, I promise I really do. In a world where the U.S. president regularly slings horribly offensive insults at his opponents and openly incites his followers to violence, why should we treat his supporters with civility? When children are being put in cages, why the hell does it matter how civil we are in our attempts to get them out? Those arguments are absolutely valid. But if you've made it this far in the post, will you bear with me a little longer?

(Apologies to those who find this word offensive.)

First, let me say this: If being "uncivil" is the best tool you have to get those children out of those cages, then by all means be uncivil. At the same time, while we're doing whatever is necessary to resolve the crisis at hand (and I do not pretend this particular crisis is resolved), I find it valuable to self-reflect on the way we solve problems, and consider whether there are better ways for us to achieve our goals. Sometimes the answer will be "no," but it's still a question worth asking. That's how we progress and make the human race better.

I'm not going to argue that you should treat your enemies civilly because they deserve it; I know that isn't a convincing argument when you're justifiably horrified that someone is doing or saying something that hurts you or people you care about. Rather, I would argue for civility for more practical reasons:
  1. Civility is often the most efficient solution to a social problem. Not always the quickest solution, mind you, but efficient in the sense of achieving results without creating new problems. If I really want you to do something, I can persuade you with reason or I can hit you over the head and force you to do what I want. Both can be effective, and violence might even achieve results sooner, but the second I turn my back, you're likely to retaliate. 
  2. If we are only civil with people who are civil with us, this cycle of incivility is just going to continue indefinitely. Currently, the right is accusing the left of being uncivil. The left responds by saying we've put up with Trump's incivility for two years--it's about time you guys get a taste of your own medicine! The right responds by saying Trump's incivility is just a reaction to years and years of the left's intellectual elite mocking and bullying middle America. The left responds that our mocking and bullying is just a response to centuries of racism, sexism, and homophobia. And on and on and on. We can argue about who started this, like two bickering children, but I'm more interested in who's going to end it. 
  3. If my worldview/philosophy/religion/political party is really the best one, I'll make a more convincing argument by showing you than by telling you. The way I show you is by being a decent human being, by living according to the values of compassion and empathy that I preach. Does this mean I lie down and let you stomp on my rights or the rights of others? No. I can firmly assert our rights and demand change without resorting to the hatred and vitriol I find so repulsive in my opponents. 
  4. Aggression is a product of toxic masculinity. For virtually all of recorded history, the world has been ruled by men with frail egos and big swords who enforce their will through violence. Admittedly, I'll take verbal violence over physical violence any day, but isn't it about time we tried something else entirely? Can we give soft power a chance? 
I look forward to a future where all of humanity's problems can and will be solved through civil discourse, but I recognize we aren't there yet. If a man is pointing a gun at my children, I'll do what I can to gently talk him out of shooting and I sure as hell won't say anything to provoke him, but you know I'll be watching for the soonest opportunity to get that gun out of his hands by whatever means necessary. If I also have a gun and I can shoot him without putting my children in greater risk than they already are, I will shoot. Given violent problems, sometimes violence is the only solution. 

With that in mind, I'll make one request: When you need to punch, punch up; don't punch down. I only became familiar with this rule of comedy recently, when reading some of the responses to Michelle Wolf's White House Correspondents' speech. The idea is that productive satire punches up by making fun of those in power, thus shining light on their abuses of power. Comedy that punches down, making fun of the powerless, just reinforces the systems that oppress them. Given this framework, if you need to be uncivil, be uncivil toward those in power--politicians--not toward the people who voted for them. If what we liberals believe about Trump is true, then his supporters, complicit as they may be in his electoral victory and in verbally defending his latest atrocity du jour, are just as much his victims as the rest of us are. Yes, minorities and immigrants are his explicit targets, but in the long run no one benefits from a Trump presidency but the very rich (and primarily Trump himself). (And if what you conservatives believe is true, we liberals need to be brought to the light, not hit over the head with it.)

As for the incident that sparked this latest debate about civility? When I heard about Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave the Red Hen, my first response was sadistic glee at someone I think is pretty horrible getting her just desserts (while being denied dessert, ha ha). My second response was that I really don't want to live in a world where I have to fear that I might be turned away from a business because of who I am, and while I see a big difference between working for Donald Trump (a choice) and being gay (not a choice), I know a lot of conservatives don't see that difference, and in a world where the right to discriminate has been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, I fear retaliation. When I got married three years ago, every time I had to explain to a vendor that my fiance was a man, I tensed in anticipation of their reaction. Thankfully no one refused us service, but the looming threat added stress to an already stressful situation. But, despite that fear, after reading others' opinions of the Red Hen situation over the past few days, I've come to the conclusion that the owner did not behave uncivilly. She exercised her right to protest, and she directed her protest at a government representative, not a civilian. She punched up, not down.

As for me, I will continue my attempts to engage civilly with people I disagree with, even those whose opinions I find repulsive and contrary to my most deeply held beliefs. I hope that, with time, our collective efforts to do so will pay off in a more harmonious civilization where we work together to find solutions to our problems through consensus and compromise. What say you, friends? Is this a hopeless effort? What value do you see in civility? When do you think it's appropriate to forget about civility and embrace a more aggressive approach? Tell me what you think. (But please don't yell. The nine-year-old child in me just wants the yelling to stop.)

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