It’s time to reintroduce this term: radical civility. By all things holy and otherwise, we need it. Desperately. Immediately. Please. I can’t read one more days’ worth of social media frothing full of half-truths, mostly lies, and the simple unwillingness to listen to one another, lest I go looking for the nearest bridge from which to leap. Not one more day of posting drivel that passes for well-researched argument, for repeating the deluge of argument from the internet without bothering with the filter of rationality.
I first got the term radical civility from historian/blogger/dad Mark Grimsley, currently writing at Sibling Rivalry. His writing isn’t always exactly what I believe – how boring would that be? – but it’s always reasoned, clearly articulated, and well-researched. My favorite thing about Mark is that he isn’t afraid to be wrong. In the current climate, that’s gotten to be singularly rare.
The idea is simple: be civil, even when, maybe especially when, you’re speaking to someone with a point of view that differs from your own. Always. Here’s the good news: it’s not that hard, and it works whether you’re speaking directly or writing in the near-synchronous world of email and social media.
A 12-step recipe for radical civility:
No one ever learned anything new while talking, or while writing what they already think.
Communication is a serial, not a parallel, process. It is not possible to listen while speaking, or preparing to speak. It is not possible to comprehend what you’re reading when you’re already writing your response in your head.
When the other person stops speaking, or you’re done reading, wait. Especially if it triggers emotion. Remember mom’s dictum: count to 10. No, seriously, just stop.
Notice how you are feeling, how you are reacting, what you are thinking. Be mindful. Notice especially the names you want to call someone, and the defenses you want to throw up. The saying, “what you don’t know won’t hurt you,” is exactly wrong. We can’t control what we don’t notice in ourselves. So notice. Then see Step 1.
Consider what you heard or read, and evaluate it. What in those words is true? What’s false? What are you imagining is being said that isn’t actually in those words? What do the words mean, and what did you add based on a tone that might or might not have been in the original? Evaluate what you heard.
Is there something you don’t know? Is there something that you are brushing off without being willing to consider it? I can’t tell you how often someone has said something to me that I just knew wasn’t true, only to find I was wrong. If that’s never happened to you, try harder.
Do your homework. When you don’t know something, find out. If you are being sold a sound bite about a larger body of work – you know, like when a scientific paper is boiled down to a single, absolute finding? – go read the original work. Too much trouble? See step 1.
Decide what you want to say
Ok, now you get to decide what you want to say. Only now. Only when you’ve listened, thought about it, paid attention to how you experience it, have considered the possibility that you don’t know everything, and done your homework. Take the time to compose your thought in a way that is designed to communicate, rather than simply defend or bat aside.
Decide whether it’s worth saying
Now that you know what you want to say, ask yourself if it’s worth the effort. Will it add to the conversation, and are you willing to wait for the response? If not, see step 1.
Speak – a little
On a recent book project, I learned this line from a colleague: The period can never come too soon in a sentence. Say what you want to say, but say it short if you want to be heard.
Watch what happens
Pay attention to the reaction of the person on the other end of the communication, or if this is happening in writing, take a moment an imagine what the person might be feeling and thinking in response to what you just wrote.
Repeat Step 1
If this feels like too much trouble, consider that maybe you don’t want to participate. It’s ok not to engage in every discussion, and it’s ok to just let some things go by. But mostly, if it feels like too much trouble, please don’t add to the climate of polarization by skipping every step except 8. Please.
The time for radical civility has come.
Dr. Les Kertay