Thursday, September 01, 2011

Civility, Dignity and Being Right

3rd in a 3 part series on Conflict

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow in the spring

The place where we are right’
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood

Yehuda Amichai, Israeli poet

You may have heard a story on NPR about  how Popular Mechanics has disproven all of the most commonly touted conspiracy theories about 9/11. I read some of the original articles, interested not so much in the particular theories and the quasi-scientific bases, but in the aspects of human nature that would lead one to persist with these claims when all the evidence is against them. I read this:
Healthy skepticism has curdled into paranoia.
Most (of these theories) are the byproducts of cynical imaginations that aim to inject suspicion and animosity into the public debate. (PM)

I also found it fascinating that the interviewee said that he had never won an argument with a conspiracy theorist. According to him, even though they say they want "proof," when given proof that does not agree with their preordained conclusion, they will just ask for another investigation. What that tells me is that there is no debate, just people who will only listen to what they have already decided is "right."

The two things I would like us to consider today are, “What is the legitimate public debate?”
And what is “the place where we are right?”

I told you in Part One of this series that I love a good argument. I probably  should have considered law as a career, but I have this one flaw.. I am too honest. (Of course there are honest lawyers, but I am way TOO honest, for my own good, sometimes!)

To me, civil discussion, disagreement, even friendly argument is the essence of good conversation. And I am all for healthy skepticism! How could I be a UU otherwise?
But the key word is civil.  As soon as civility and dignity  have left the stage, the show gets ugly. The public debate ends and the mudslinging, name-calling, character assassination, and low blows begin. Then it is no longer a discussion but a tirade or worse, a tantrum.

Civility and dignity.

How do we maintain them without going over into “niceness,” which squelches and silences legitimate differences of opinion?
Hosea Ballou, early Universalist minister who helped articulate that faith said famously, “If we agree in love, then there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. Let us endeavor to keep the unity of spirit in the bonds of peace.”

1.     We must start by leaving behind the “place where we are right.” Rather than trying to “win,” healthy interchange seeks to find out, to learn, to grow and to encounter “the other.” A good way to start is to ask questions.  Two important questions when doing systems work are, “Why this issue?” and  “Why now?” These questions get at the relationship issues that often underlie the surface or presenting issues.

2.     Focus on self. This is different from focusing on what you want. As Karen Armstrong writes, we must “dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world” and at the same time, we must know who we are and where we begin and end. Self-differentiated persons are far less prone to mob mentality and infectious anxiety which often lead to bad behavior. A self-differentiated person is willing to listen, to learn, and to change.

3.     Time to think. Time is essential in situations of conflict. Do not allow someone else’s urgency to become yours. Margaret Wheatley writes, “Thinking is the place where intelligent action begins.” Time and space are essential. So is the ability to breathe. Otherwise, your “thinking” will just be obsessing, ruminating, or worse. Says Rumi: Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk, and this is the edge of the roof. 

4.     Get outside. We all need to be reminded of the web of life, our deep interconnectedness, and our obligation to preserve the world. In the face of the stars, the vastness of space, the complexity of a spider web, the intricate miracle of a flower lie many answers. We become more humble, more fertile with questions, more intrigued and inspired, and we leave that hard, foreboding ground where we are “right.”
Finally, we must learn to listen well and to treat one another with dignity as well as to have dignity ourselves.

“We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.” (K.Armstrong, Charter for Compassion)

UU minister Ron Robinson writes:
Civility will not become real in our world with rallies, with books, with speeches and sermons. …What is needed now … for the survival of civil society are relationships of persons seeking the deepest freedom in community, where they are reminded again and again that the good life means getting over the preoccupation with self, that life is not about me and my wants but about serving God through serving the least of these who struggle with needs not wants. We must create newer and better communities dedicated to the practice of civility…