3 Ways to Improve the Civility of Our Conversations Online

3 Ways to Improve the Civility of Our Conversations Online

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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is anger.jpgIt’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?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is candidate-lincoln-photographed-by-preston-brooks-in-1860.-library-of-congress.jpg

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.

The Lesser of Two Evils: A Masonic Perspective

The Lesser of Two Evils: A Masonic Perspective

Written by Bro... Marcus Radiant


I WRITE not to persuade anyone to vote one way or another, nor to condemn or venerate one’s decisions in life, but to examine the reason why we choose. In my Masonic circle of friends, there are those that lean conservative and those that lean liberal, and every four years, I hear the same argument from both sides:

“We must choose the candidate that is least evil.”

Nobody ever seems satisfied with the choices, so they opt for the age-old logical fallacy, choosing the lesser of two evils. No doubt, this supposed logical decision is the source of comfort for many. The problem with this line of logic is that the choice between the lesser evil and greater evil is still evil. This type of decision making is an abdication of choice. It forces a person into a conundrum of choosing between two options are neither desirable.

We certainly do not apply this logic (I hope) to choosing a relationship, a spouse, a friend, or even a career. Do we raise our children to seek the least bad or the greatest good? 

In Masonry, we are directed to follow the “undeviating line of righteousness.” Aided by the Level, Plumb, and Square, we are always to make choices that are morally correct, ones that measure up and conform to the system of morality which we ascribe.

More to the point, every crime against Humanity was justified by this argument of choice. Genocide, slavery, conquest, and every form of coercion is firmly planted on the argument that the oppressor represents the lesser evil, fighting the greater evil. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all used this line of thinking to align their people into the path of destruction.

THE APPLICATION OF MASONIC VIRTUES

A person who chooses the lesser of two evils forfeits the Masonic Virtues of Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. These cardinal ideas mark the path of every Freemason throughout the world being the foundation of a Masonic system of Morality and cannot be ignored in times of ease or trouble. When we make choices out of fear, we fail to live up to our Masonic obligations.

Prudence is ignored when we make decisions on fear, rather than wisdom. Fortitude is lost when we make the easiest decisions. Temperance is neglected when we make decisions without moderation. Finally, Justice can never be achieved while we choose the lesser of two evils.

In this final virtue, there is no compromise, for if the rights of one person are violated, then the rights of all are violated. Anything less than perfect justice is tyranny, and this notion should be repugnant to any Freemason. This choice, though it may seem obvious, is indeed the root of all evil. For in any choice that one pardons ill based on the frailty of human perspective, evil has advanced.

In our delusion, we believe that we have not compromised our values, our morality, that by taking the “lesser” road we have done good and promoted righteousness. 

Yet, for all the power of justification, we have surrendered the only power that each of us truly possesses, our moral rectitude. With every compromise, the integrity of the Temple of Humanity is degraded; every time we look the other way we debase the fabric of society. How can the perfection of Humanity ever be achieved with such inferior logic? 

Machiavelli wrote in his famous book The Prince:

“Wisdom consists of knowing how to distinguish the nature of trouble, and in choosing the lesser evil.”

Not only is this quote insidious; it is immoral in light of Humanity’s achievements. It is a description of the impulse of our reptilian mind, of our primitive self, once needed to navigate the tumultuous landscape of the wilderness, but now an obstacle to overcome. We have evolved in cooperation and mutual support. We have grown and prospered by the moral imperative of noble thoughts and courageous actions. If we are deserving of the title human, then we should act like one, choosing only that which follows the plumbline of our moral values. If the choice requires us to deviate from what is right, then we have marked ill. 

TAKING THE HIGHER ROAD: THE DUTY OF A MASON

Before the balloting of a candidate into Freemasonry, we are told by the Master of the Lodge to vote our conscience.

Ballot Box

This simple truth should be the guiding star of our political decisions. Each must vote according to their moral compass, choosing leaders and policies that appear good, not a compromise of values, but as a choice of what is right. 

Do your duty, no matter the consequences. These sweet words of Freemasonry still fill my mind every time I am confronted with a hard decision. Choosing the lesser of two evils is half a choice, or at worst, no choice at all. Always vote your conscience. And if the right choice does not appear, continue to look, for in the search you may find exactly that which you seek. 

As Masons, we are directed to take the higher road, always and everywhere. It is a fallacy that there only exist: two choices, two destinations, two forces. The insidious powers of duality are always narrowing our senses into two opposite and extreme choices. But isn’t choice a spectrum rather than a fork in the road? Did not our ancient Brethren, whether Alchemist, Hermeticist, or Gnostic, teach us that life is a mosaic pavement of options? The material world is a trap of choices, always leading downward into the cynical abyss of “forced” choice.

Freemasonry and Civil Discourse in the Digital Age

Freemasonry and Civil Discourse in the Digital Age

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.

Civil Discourse and Free Speech

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, itFree Speech 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.

Compelled Civility and Free Speech

Today, speech and its regulation are yet another highly polarized and debated topic, to a compelled speechlarge 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.

To Be a Level in a World Askew

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, webalance 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.

Universal Freemasonry

TO THE GLORY OF GOD

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