Fierce Civility

It frequently strikes me how little power I have in the world beyond the interior of my brain. While others have found solace in their powerlessness by fawning over those with power, adopting their language, swearing their fealty, and deluding themselves into thinking that it will somehow rub off on them, I find solace in the fact that I do not matter. That nothing I do has much consequence or meaning in the bigger scheme. I own no banks or armies. I cannot seduce or overpower. I’m marginally intelligent, but have thus far found little advantage in a world that dances with stars and phones in an idol.

canstockphoto466246After the corrosive Supreme Court process, some people are crowing and bragging. Others are blaming and giving out unsolicited advice. Mostly, it’s just more noise.  A good portion of it is online, but to paraphrase Soylent Green, it’s people. Trolls are people. Politicians are people. Republicans and Democrats, racists and snowflakes are people. They all were born and they will all die and they each get to decide what kind of person they want to be in between those milestones.

The point is that individuals don’t get to take cover in ideology to justify behaving badly. How they conduct themselves is entirely their responsibility. They don’t get to point at someone or something else and bleat they started it. They don’t get to shroud themselves in the flag or the Bible or self-righteousness, while being cruel and vicious to other humans. They cannot do this without damaging their character in the process.

I used to give politicians some leeway because it seemed like no matter how decent they were prior to going into politics, they seemed to morph into snake oil salespeople the longer they served. Would you believe that Senator Grassley didn’t always seem like a sack of donut holes and denture cream? My family used to vote for him. I once shook his hand as a Girl Scout growing up in Iowa.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

   — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964

But the day has come and gone for excusing ratty behavior in the pursuit of a win and encouraging that behavior to gain power. I’ve never had much power, except over who I decide to be. It’s a battle I have to fight everyday. I wake up, read the news, and I have to decide if I’m going to spend the day simmering with anger, or if I’m going to get on with the business of being human and using the very small, very localized power that I have to ensure that my own house is in order before I venture out to tell someone else how to take care of theirs.

canstockphoto6997195Last night, I vetted audience questions for a school board candidate debate. It meant screening out snark and partisan comments, rewriting questions to have broader application, etc. It was a polite process, even when there were tough questions on the table about an upcoming levy referendum, the achievement gap, and other education-related questions. No one shouted. People didn’t storm out.

Candidates considered each question and gave their perspectives. People applauded to thank them at the end. Would it have been more useful with people hurling invectives, the moderator acting more as investigative journalist? I think less information would have been shared, fewer audience questions addressed, and anxiety levels would have been high. No doubt there were disgruntled people, but not inflamed. The whole evening was a lesson in political civility.

“Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation.”

David Brooks

There is an argument that to wield power you have to win that power and to win that power, you have to put aside your moral compass. So from the get-go, that power is tainted. While people talk about resistance, I go a step further and define it for myself. Amoral people don’t get to turn me into them. They don’t get to take my humanity and twist it into an unrecognizable heap of venom and spitefulness. If that happens, then there is no point in “winning”.

Despite what seems to be delusions en masse, I don’t confuse civility with weakness or canstockphoto16445383cruelty for strength. I don’t confuse “telling it like it is” with truth or decency. I am not led astray by those who would condemn entire swathes of people to being evil, especially by those who say they are Christians or patriots or freedom-lovers. Liars. Your behavior betrays you. Your self-identification is an empty vessel. Your representation is false.

When I listen to the president of this country tell people that they have no right to representation and governance, that they are weak, that they are paid to represent the other side, that the media is the enemy of the people, I do not need to ask that McCarthy-era question. I know that he has no decency, no moral compass, no sense of honor. But that does not mean that he gets to take the rest of us with him.

The whole country wants civility. Why don’t we have it? It doesn’t cost anything. No federal funding, no legislation is involved. One answer is the unwillingness to restrain oneself. Everybody wants other people to be polite to them, but they want the freedom of not having to be polite to others.

Judith Martin

So I hold fast to civility. I look to leaders in the past who led through non-violence and radical compassion and iron kindness. People in power don’t get to make the rules for what kind of person I will be. In the current environment, I’m really going to have to work for it. It’s not easy and I have, at times, failed.

canstockphoto40192237Fierce civility. It’s not acquiescence. It’s not complicity. It’s not silence. It’s the ability to understand that violence and unethical behavior has a temporary quality, but a permanent stain. It’s courage to be decent humans in the face of blatant rage and fear. It is our character under fire that defines us. Those fires are going to get hotter. Practice civility and courage now and often. We will be tested as individuals and a nation. It’s a test I want to pass.

22 Comments on “Fierce Civility

  1. It seems to me that you do a lot of good in your circle of influence, per Stephen Covey. Not just this blog, which often contains encouragement to just be a good person — but well-considered political work at a local level. This is true power: working with our own stuff and then extending goodness into the world as we can. Nicely done.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Cate. After reading so many articles castigating the one party for not playing as nasty as another, I have been struggling with this idea of civility. Is something worth doing, if it’s not strategic? I think it just has to be or what has been won? And it’s not choosing to be silent – it’s choosing to be direct, consistent, determined, while not expending energy with vitriol. See? Still having the argument with myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. VOTE PEOPLE!! VOTE!
    We can make a change in this world by the power of a vote.

    We do not have to tolerate the corruption and the all out attacks on our rights. We all have the right and we must exercise it each and every year and when those who are in office are snakes in the grass then vote them out! If they don’t maintain our morals and our ethics and represent our views VOTE THEM OUT!

    Michelle you and I both have protected these rights and now each of us has to work hard to make sure everyone understands they have the power to change this current situation.

    Thank you for be blunt and sharing your thoughts with the world.

    Keep doing all the little things to encourage civility and ethics.

    Keep writing your heart out as it is a freedom I fought for and many died for.

    Keep doing the right thing!

    Like

    • I tend to be much more cynical than you regarding the voting. I’m voting, but I have my suspicions that if the outcome favors Democrats in any way, that this administration will seek to delegitimize the results. Actually, the president is already doing this by saying the Chinese are going to interfere with our elections (a new conspiracy theory) and by calling one major party incapable of governing.
      However, you are right – we have to exercise the rights we currently have, in hope of saving the ones we may lose.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. You may not have power on a large international scale, but you do have power. And you put it to very good use. Today you’ve made me think of Gandhi — “be the change you want to see.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Fransi. It’s not often I inspire thoughts of Ghandi. Exercising one’s local power is a much easier approach than trying to solve problems on a grander scale. I am deeply concerned that it will all be for naught, but as I was trying to say in this post, we have to stick to our integrity, or more will be lost than gained.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Being active locally is very important, there we can make a difference and have an impact. And I agree about sticking to integrity — more now than ever.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Another excellent, thought-provoking post, Michelle. I make a distinction between personal power and delegated power. We all have personal power, but many people choose to delegate theirs to others, like institutions, or politicians. Or they deny their own power by trying to play a stereotyped role. Where, now, is the voice of civility in national politics?
    Your example at the school board debate indicates your personal power helped guide a civil meeting. We need more examples of maturity in the public eye.

    Like

    • Thanks, Katherine. Although on a re-read, I’m not sure I can call for civility when I refer to a sitting US senator as “a sack of donut holes and denture cream”. Ah well, it’s a learning process. Recognizing this might be a dichotomy is the first step to solving the problem, I suppose.
      My experience with the League of Women Voters has really made me appreciate the nonpartisan voter rights and community issues approach to problem solving. Some of the women have served for 50+ years, so they came off a very tumultuous time in American history and through Watergate – I see their dedication of purpose – they don’t get sidetracked in the noise. It’s been a great lesson in fierce civility.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Those women sound like good role models. Also, I think there’s room for humor in civility, and even your target might appreciate the graphic imagery, if he has a sense of humor.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Nicely written piece, Michelle. Your topic is something I have been pondering because this last Supreme Court vetting touched a lot of buttons for me so staying civil has been challenging. I am having trouble posting these days because I can’t speak to politics without jumping into the mud, and anything else that bounces between my ears seems somehow too mundane and irrelevant in comparison to the big fights that are going on.

    Like

    • I was thinking about the fact that dishonorable people are calling for civility after doing things that are damaging to others. Their definition of civility = silence and submission. So much of what is happening and being said is out of our control, so the real trick is to figure out what we really have power over. It starts with our own characters – they don’t get to decide who we are. And then we focus on things that we can do. It’s the only way I can keep anger to a simmer and not become a horrible human being.

      Like

      • Me too, Michelle. I am working at keeping the love in my marriage (I try to only engage in funny, good-spirited snark) along with knitting for great-grandchildren and making quilts to give away. It is the only way I know how to make the world a kinder, gentler place. At 74 I know how to maintain my integrity most of the time, and right now I am putting my integrity into practice by doing the things I am good at. The only thing I can’t seem to do right now is write but that will change when the time is right.

        Like

        • Since writing is the thing I love, I’ve been writing a lot of different things – from poems to short stories from prompts just to shake myself out of constant angst and anger -reminds me that it’s okay to be funny, to have fun, and to laugh. It sounds like you’ve found a haven as well.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s much easier to be offhand and rude than to be civil. You make a great case for reasonable discourse, Michelle, and all sides of the political divide could learn something from your careful and caring expression of views.

    Like

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