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America is in crisis. Civility will keep it alive

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A large group of protesters walk past a billboard urging civility Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in St. Charles, Mo.

Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

Contrary to the sentimental and altogether creepy messages of your corporate and government friends, “solidarity” and “unity” are not what the country needs. What we need instead is civility, an acceptance of disagreement and a toleration of discord.

But it’s a difficult time for civility in America. The country is facing a pandemic, economic anxiety, nationwide protests and rioting. Such emotionally animating circumstances have made it difficult to tolerate disagreement, be it on face masks, police reform or everyday politics. But there is no more crucial time to practice civil discourse than during a crisis. It’s eminently important now, more than ever.

It’s easy to be civil over things that don’t matter. No one throws a punch over wheat versus white bread. So in the context of a banal news cycle, when the stakes are low, disagreement is easy. But people are too often fair-weather friends of civility.

In the midst of a crisis like the current pandemic, however, when the American imagination is in full panic over a potential existential threat, civility goes out the window. Lines are drawn, and two mutually antagonistic caricatures emerge — the selfish and stupid right-winger, who’s as ignorant of science as he is immoral, and the manic authoritarian left-winger, who wants to control every element of your life, and who loves mob rule more than he hates America. 

These are, of course, rather uncharitable views. But this identification and vilification is a part of our evolved psyche.

When the stakes are high, like during a pandemic, we often click into a tribal psychology that identifies the problem, or problematic persons, and desires to eliminate them. It’s the kind of “us versus threat” response that kept early humans alive in our ancestral environments. When you see a tiger lurking on the edge of your village, it’s no time to talk.

But tribal psychology can’t solve this pandemic. It’s human intelligence and creativity that’s creating mitigating strategies and medical treatments. And these efforts fundamentally call for disagreements, both political and scientific as well as moral. There must be room for such disagreement, not only in the universities and research institutions, but in the every-day life of the everyday American.

A tiger means panic. A pandemic means think. 

“But,” the objection quickly follows, “we know what we need to do!” No, we don’t. Consensus is almost always an illusion, and it’s a disastrously risky gambit to put all your eggs in one basket or, rather, to reject the possibility that other people might have other plausible baskets. And the only way to know this is to talk with them, to let them explain their reasoning and justifications.

It’s difficult to admit that a person who disagrees with you has good reason to do so. It’s far easier to pick up one of those uncharitable caricatures. But if the goal is to find a solution, as it indeed should be, we must be willing to consider all possibilities. “My way or the highway” type thinking is a recipe for disaster. Closed systems, views that reject any new input, stagnate and decay.

Beyond this solutions-oriented reason for civil discourse, it’s also essential simply as a mitigating strategy for violence. While no one throws a punch over bread, people are all too willing to use force and violence against their ideological or political opposition. 

As the great Daryl Davis once said, so long as you’re talking, you’re not fighting. For the sake of peace, civil discourse must be actively upheld during polarizing crises.

Solidarity and unity are useful only for identifying and eliminating the enemy — the tiger. Tolerance through civility, on the other hand, is what allows a pluralistic society to function, and it’s what will get us to the other side of this crisis without killing each other in the process.

So while it’s entirely understandable to be stressed and emotionally animated about life right now, we can’t let the primordial brain take the wheel. We must stay open, practice civility and keep talking.

Shaun Cammack (@shaunjcammack) is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a contributor with Young Voices.