Civil DiscourseIn a climate of increasing vitriolic “discourse,” the stress level and the general discontent of the American people are rising to epic proportions. This is not good for us as individuals or for our country, as it continues to undermine our democratic process or our “republic,” if you prefer. It is so easy to get caught up in the fight for justice, as we see it, and to take sides, forget discourse, and as my friend, who inspired this article said, “hunker down” on the side we’ve chosen, and give up on listening and reasoning with those who oppose our beliefs. But as this wise friend also said, “it feels like other people just want to draw lines and fight; I could too, I suppose, and I suppose I even know who would be beside me, but I don’t want to think about who would be on the other side.” I don’t either.

Let’s be realistic here. We all have our opinions and our friends who are in our camp, but we also know people that we love and respect who are in the other camp. Perhaps, we think they are misguided or misinformed, but we still care about them because we know they are not evil. Why can’t we just get them to understand? we ask ourselves, while they wonder the same about us.

The real trouble comes when we think they are evil, when we misinterpret their motives or put them in a convenient box of explanations of where we believe they are coming from. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that evil exists, and some have chosen it, but for the average American, this is not the case, and if we give up on talking to each other in a civil way, we are doomed to violence and unrest. We, on both sides, could continue to be the pawns of those who might actually have malevolent intents.

We need to step back and get some perspective. We need to stop arguing for a minute and listen, even if we don’t want to hear it. We need to consider the possibility that we’ve been misinterpreting motives and information. We need to make sure we aren’t simply chess pieces in a game, being used for purposes we don’t even care about.

I think a great first step is to limit how much news we listen to. We can O.D. on the negative until we can’t even recognize the positive. Also, we need to force ourselves to investigate the opposing side’s views, even if it goes against all of our biases. We need to realize that things are rarely as black and white as they are painted. And we need to treat these hot-button issues as if we are in negotiations with a valued ally. It’s called compromise and common ground. Compromising is a necessary and honorable fact of life in a widely diverse society such as our own. We are not compromising our private morals or principles when we make concessions to live peacefully together. We aren’t giving in to evil. That’s what the spin-doctors, politicians, and propaganda-spreaders want us to believe. Resist. These are our people they are trying to get us to hate. Don’t let them succeed.

This situation has recently brought to mind a dystopian science fiction teleplay of The Twilight Zone by Ray Bradbury called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” wherein aliens manipulate a previously close-knit and friendly neighborhood of humans into hysterically judging each other, playing on their prejudices, fears, and paranoia. They spread lies and manipulate the people into suspecting each other of being the “aliens,” turning them against each other until a riot breaks out and people are killed. The closing, narrated by Rod Serling, goes, “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is – that these things cannot be confined – to the Twilight Zone.” To take a lesson from The Twilight Zone, we cannot let our suspicions of each other destroy us and turn us against each other, and we cannot let the powers-that-be manipulate us into hatred for each other for their own purposes.

Even though this episode of The Twilight Zone originally aired in 1960, the media is used to manipulate the people on Maple Street. The press has always been the “Fourth Estate,” the other three historically being “king, clergy, and commoners,” or more recently and in America, it is thought of as the fourth check in the balances of government, as in “checks and balances.” The legislative, judicial, and executive branches check each other, while the press is a check of the government by the people. As distrust in journalism grows, we lose our (the people’s) check on the government. We must hold our journalists to high standards, yet we cannot control the misinformation and outright lies meant to propagandize the public through social media outlets or even unethical news outlets. When facts and lies or half-truths are indistinguishable from each other, we tend to just go with our confirmation bias, believing the side we already are inclined to agree with. We have to stop this, and we have to insist that our journalists report facts in an unbiased way unless clearly giving editorial, and editorials should not be our primary source of news. We have to play the skeptic all the time. We have to question the reality of our own group-think, and most importantly, we have to talk and listen to each other, and finally, we have to learn to cooperate and compromise.

In a country the size of the United States, and in such a culturally diverse place where we say we have the freedom to believe as we want, we simply have to learn to negotiate. We can’t just hold our ground and demand that we will not give in to “evil.” Instead, we need to learn the rules of civil discourse, the rules of logic and debate, and apply skepticism even to ourselves, and then we need to temper that with the assurance that we are all part of something bigger, the same bigger ideal—the same people, united under the respect and belief in the freedoms and rights put forth in our Constitution with the confidence that we can live together as one people, even while disagreeing on certain issues, that we can take our victories and our defeats as friendly competitors and not as enemies, and we can live within the agreements we make with each other. I’m not coming to you from a place of innocence. We have all been guilty. Let’s step back and remember who we are and what this country was meant to represent. Let’s start talking and stop fighting, please.—Christina Knowles