As Freemasons, the concept of the Word is very important to us, both in ritual, as well as in daily life. The Word represents the medium through which truth is transmitted, it’s how we express ourselves, and ultimately is the essence of the creative principle of the universe. In the beginning, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. One interpretation is that the Word represents the abstract essence of the ideal structures of information which form reality itself, the thoughts of the G.A.O.T.U., perhaps.
On a more practical level, in day-to-day life in civil society, how we communicate with one another via language can determine our success in life, the harmony of our social environment, and in some cases can be a matter of life and death. Some would even argue that language is the primary differentiator which makes us human and places us in a category above the animals. The importance of language to human life truly cannot be overstated, but exactly how we communicate with one another is also a subject of much debate and controversy, currently.
It seems to be exceedingly difficult these days to communicate with those we disagree with in any meaningful way, and almost every discussion, particularly on the internet, tends to devolve into divisiveness and anger. This is partly because of the lack of face-to-face interaction and partly because of the filter bubble or echo chamber effect, which occurs when either we or the algorithms that control what we see in social media cause us to only hear or communicate with those with whom we agree. These factors, thereby, contribute to increasingly polarized and radical views, and the atrophy of our capacity to tolerate opposing views.
What seems to be lacking in modern times is civil discourse. Civility, or Civil Discourse, is a long tradition of philosophy and communication, and throughout history, it has undergone various transformations, or has at times been rejected. So, what is civility, and how should we use it in our approach to communicating on subjects where there is so much disagreement?
The root of the word civility is the same as the root for citizen, and civilization, the latin “civilis.” In the larger sphere of human life beyond communication alone, it means “working together productively to reach a common goal, often with beneficent purposes.” In other words, civility is cooperation towards a shared goal, which is the basis of civilization – hence the words’ etymological relatedness.
In communication specifically, we refer to this as civil discourse. Just like the definition of civility more generally, civil discourse is when we communicate together towards a common goal. This concept is most important, naturally, when there is a disagreement of some kind, for it’s easy to be civil when we agree. According to the principle of civil discourse, we should do everything in our capability to communicate with those we disagree with in a manner which allows us to work together towards a common goal: namely finding or approximating truth together. Alternatively, in some cases, it is simply coming to some level of mutual agreement or common ground.
The tricky part comes when civility sometimes might require us to restrict our sense of freedom of expression.
Alongside this principle of civility, we also have the concept of free speech, or freedom of expression, which, as we all know, is written into the U.S. Constitution as a fundamental right, at least insomuch as the government should not be able to prohibit it. Many people go a step further and believe that not only should we have the right not to have our speech censored by the government, but also that this should be a more broad cultural ideal; so that, in general, people are able to speak their mind without fear of retribution, ostracization, or termination from their job.
Today, speech and its regulation are yet another highly polarized and debated topic, to a large extent along political party lines. On one side, we have those who wish to utilize authority to limit certain kinds of speech which are deemed to be harmful, such as hate speech, racism, mis-gendering, and “fake news.” On the other, we have those who believe in a fundamental concept of free speech, so that anyone should be able to speak their own opinion, regardless of the effects it might have, as long as actual threats are not being made. This includes opinions that many would find extremely offensive, perhaps even harmful in some ways, such as inciting violence.
This polarity is an interesting one and is reminiscent of many other polarities we may take notice of in nature and in human life: Chaos and Order, Progress and Conservatism, Intellect and Feeling; in a way, I can see all of these dichotomies at play in this singular issue. At times, it seems as if everything we do is some sort of interplay of opposites, and which side we identify with crosses over into other spectra of life, which might otherwise seem unrelated.
While I fall firmly onto the side of free speech as far as the government is concerned, how to approach the dichotomy of civility and free speech on a personal level is much more interesting and also relevant to the Masonic life.
As Freemasons, we are simultaneously compelled to seek and speak truth, as well as, to unite humanity, which can seem paradoxical given all of the divisions over what is true. We are expected to tolerate differences of opinion and worldview. In our speech, as in many other aspects of our lives, we are encouraged to seek balance: the middle way. Not only that, but we also aim to serve as a balancing force on the world around us, for we believe that the truth is in the center point.
When we are able to balance free speech and civility in ourselves and when we are able to speak in a way that is not hateful or divisive without avoiding speaking our truths, we can act as a balancing force to the polarized culture of the day, around whatever topic of discussion we come into contact with. Part of the work we must do in the world is to be the level which brings balance to that which is askew.
In a world where polarized opinions seem to perpetuate themselves in an endless feedback loop, how do we do this? I think the answer has to be that we first seek balance in ourselves and then seek it in others. Every radical on one side has a nascent version of the opposite view and traits buried deep within them, somewhere. As in Jungian psychology, every introvert has an unconscious extrovert, or vice versa; whatever we identify with consciously, the opposite dwells in darkness within us, and it is our job to bring light to it – both in ourselves and in others.
How do we do that? We ask probing and thought provoking questions, rather than tell people what to think. We notice the imbalances in ourselves and others and seek out their counterbalance. We act as moderators, bridge builders, and help people find common ground. Perhaps most difficult of all, we maintain respect for the inner light that dwells within each individual, however concealed with the muck of dogma it might be.
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