IS it possible to have civil discourse online today regarding a controversial topic? I have to say, there are times that I feel it is not, or at least it’s extremely challenging. This is particularly true of online discussions via social media, which make up more and more of the political conversations going on these days. In fact, this is an understatement; the truth is that I often feel like the world has gone totally insane.
Why is this the case? There are various ideas floating around in the ether about why it’s gotten tough to talk to each other politely, mostly having to do with the lack of face-to-face interaction and the empathy that entails while interacting online, plus the echo-chamber effect of surrounding ourselves with only those who see the world as we do. I would even add certain cultural developments, particularly the idea that we are actually obligated to be outraged by certain ideas. This seems related to the idea of taboo, that some topics or opinions are simply forbidden, a pattern that has existed in virtually all human societies, although what is taboo in those various societies may be very different.
However, the current climate might be explained, what can each of us do to increase the civility of our own interactions? These are a few of my thoughts on what each of us can do to make our discussions more civil and ultimately more rewarding.
Recognize Civil Discourse as a Skill
It’s not easy to keep your cool when someone disagrees with you. Much of our identities are tied up in our opinions and worldviews, and when someone questions that, it can sometimes feel like shaking our foundations. Of course, beneath every angry response is the hidden fear that we may actually be wrong, may have not properly thought something out, and might end up looking like a fool. It’s happened to us all at least once, and it could certainly happen again.
It’s important to recognize that overcoming this inner “trigger mechanism” is essentially a skill, one that has to be practiced and honed; in Freemasonry, this references the work of subduing one’s passions and is a key step in progressing in the Craft. Self-control, restraint from excess, and moderation in all things are some of skills which should distinguish a Freemason.
We all know that children lack the self-control necessary to always regulate their emotional outbursts, and so, those who are able to do it must have learned it along the way. Ideally, this would be a part of our standard education, at least at the college level, but sadly, many college students and graduates are still lacking in this department, especially since college campuses are increasingly becoming “safe spaces” where disagreement on some topics is not permitted.
Therefore, if you find yourself getting angry when you encounter those who disagree with you, be aware of what is unfolding within you, take a step back, and understand that you are practicing a skill, as you choose to respond more skillfully. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself when you fail, as some failure is required in the learning process of every skill.
Recognize Civil Discourse as Desirable
This might seem like a no-brainer, but oddly enough, in many cases it isn’t. There are various cultural movements which are almost opposed to the very idea of civil discourse, or at least have come to think that one should not be calm in discussing some “sacred cows.” My experience has been that this is true on both sides of the aisle.
A great example of how this is the case is the classic divisive political issue: abortion. On both sides of this issue, there is a general sense that you should be outraged at the other side. If you’re “pro-life,” then you believe people are murdering babies, and what sort of monster would be able to calmly discuss that? If you’re “pro-choice,” you believe that religious zealots are attempting to control people’s medical choices about their own bodies, and so what kind of psychopath could see that as justifiable?
I’m actually somewhat on the fence on this issue, which may be why it’s so apparent to me that these two camps are both being so unreasonable. The point here is not the ethical dilemma of abortion, but the fact that we can hardly seem to have a civil discussion about it. Insert any similarly divisive issue, and it’s more-or-less the same story.
This is why we absolutely must learn the skill of civil discourse. As President Abraham Lincoln once said, “A house divided cannot stand.” If we are ever to make progress and have any semblance of harmony and peace in society among various groups of people who see the world so differently, it will only be if we are able to communicate and see one another’s point of view. The only way that will happen is by civil discourse. [Image: Lincoln photographed by Preston Brooks in 1860. Library of Congress Collection.]
Learn to Be Comfortable With Uncertainty
One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Anton Wilson, when he said, “The totally convinced and the totally stupid have too much in common for the resemblance to be accidental.” This is not to accuse anyone of being stupid, but rather, to make us aware that our absolute conviction about certain things is very frequently a less intelligent way of operating. Even if we feel relatively sure about something, we should always understand that the information we have at our disposal is incomplete, and therefore leave a little room for doubt.
One pattern that I have observed, and luckily managed to avoid more often than not, is the swinging pendulum effect. Essentially, someone is very adamant about a topic, and then someone argues them well enough into the ground to make them feel foolish, and they swap positions, becoming even more adamant against those who hold their previous views. I speculate that this antagonism after a paradigm shift towards those who hold one’s old paradigm is a neurotic expression of one’s own shame at having been revealed as (apparently) foolish.
The key idea here is that if we never learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, then we tend to swing from dogmatism to dogmatism, waging ideological war against anyone we disagree with, perhaps subconsciously motivated by our shame at having had to admit we were wrong in our previous dogmatism.
Unity, Equality, and Temperance
Freemasonry upholds the virtues of Temperance and Equality; its principles remind us of the inherent Unity of all of Humanity: One Brotherhood of Mankind united under God. The Craft instructs its initiates to avoid extremes by finding a middle path and to practice the Golden Rule with our fellows. All of this rage is really, I believe, misplaced fear of uncertainty, and our own fundamental discomfort at being a tiny human in the vast universe that can never know reality completely. That is an essential truth of our existence which we must be aware of enough to grow accustomed.
With that, let us conclude with these relevant words from a former U.S. Congressman and Freemason:
“We are one people with one family. We all live in the same house… and through books, through information, we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
– The V. Ills. Bro. John Lewis 33°
* Above Image: Bro. John Lewis – U.S. Capitol Rotunda October 2019 [Image Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo]
* Brother Lewis was a Scottish Rite Mason in Atlanta Consistory No. 24-A, Orient of Georgia (PHA). He was coroneted a 33° SGIG in 2011 at the United Supreme Council Session in Atlanta. And he was a Shriner in the Prince Hall-associated Khedive Temple No. 16, and later in Mecca Temple No. 10, in the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.