A class on civil discourse aims to teach us to be nice
DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — If a sudden, smiling plague of newfound civility sweeps the nation, infecting partisans on the left and right with virulent strains of respect and dignity, maybe it will have started here, in an idyllic town on the river.
More than 100 Mainers showed up at a Quaker meetinghouse here for a forum about how to be civil while discussing politics — or in other words, how to talk to your uncle about Trump without devolving into red-faced shouting and sarcasm. In a left-leaning town of about 2,000 in a starkly divided county, it wasn’t quite group therapy. But it was something close.
“You wouldn’t be here tonight if you didn’t think this was serious,” said Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, executive director of the University of Arizona-based National Institute for Civil Discourse, who came to Damariscotta to lead the civility training. Maine is one of four states where the organization is launching an initiative called Revive Civility.
Damariscotta is about 50 miles north of Portland, and gathering 100-plus people on a Tuesday night in late August was a bit of a feat. But people came because they couldn’t talk to their friends and their neighbors, they said, or because their children were barely speaking to each other. Some said they’d come because they simply couldn’t bring up anything political anymore.
“I have a couple of friends who are quite liberal and we just agreed not to talk about it,” said David Spector, a conservative voter from nearby Newcastle, who came because he’s tired of what he sees as increasing incivility in political discourse. “I’m not going to screw up a friendship just because he’s wrong.”
Recounting the recent examples of discord here would hardly advance the cause of civility, but it’s fair to say that the tenor of our national discourse is at a low point. A 2016 poll found 70 percent of Americans believed incivility had reached “crisis” levels, and it’s hard to imagine that number has dropped much in the year since.
“Donald Trump did not cause the issues that we’re in,” Lukensmeyer told the crowd. “[But] Donald Trump exacerbated them by the language that he used.” Even Trump’s staunchest supporters would be unlikely to describe civility as his strong suit.
Civility doesn’t mean agreement, of course, and there are some divides that no amount of respect will bridge. But we’ve reached the point at which we regard even those who earnestly disagree with us on matters of legitimate debate as mortal enemies. Civility demands only that you see them as people, and treat them with respect.
The Revive Civility initiative — it’s not a campaign, Lukensmeyer said, because people hate politically inflected words like “campaign” — offers a few tips on how to have a civil discussion despite disagreement. One such resource on its list, aimed at a younger demographic, is an automated text-message training program that will walk you through just such a conversation. Gather a few people you hate — er, disagree with — and text the word “civility” to 89800, and follow the instructions.
Early in the hourlong process, the text-message service sends along a video about active listening, which involves actually hearing what someone is saying instead of just waiting for your turn to say something funny like most of us do.
“Have one person discuss their point of view and underlying values on the topic,” one of the text messages instructed. “The other person listens for understanding. When done, the listener repeats back what their partner just shared.”
“We’ve seen a fair amount of people whose distress is at work,” Lukensmeyer said. She has gotten calls about project teams collapsing under the weight of political disagreements — formerly productive business units that simply refuse to work with someone who voted for him or for her.
I decided to try this out on a dimwitted colleague whose politics I don’t know but whose views on barbecue are deeply offensive. He couldn’t understand why I was suddenly being so patient and kind, or why my voice was rising three octaves whenever I said, “I hear what you’re saying, and I respect you.”
After a whole conversation during which grievous violence was only threatened once, the system was ready for a tougher test.
As it happens, I’d just seen an e-mail from someone with whom I respectfully disagreed — a reader writing under the alias Red Dogg who’d sent a series of fairly uncivil messages to the Globe. (Sample: “Seth Rich was obviously killed by Killary’s clan. The police’s official story is laughable and clearly total [expletive], you [expletive] [expletive]. Yeah , he killed and robbed , but NOTHING was taken ??? MORON …… MORON ….. [expletive] MORON . People like you are a HUGE part of the problem . [Expletive] all of you Freemason , secret handshaking sociopath and psychopath [expletives].”)
I wrote to Mr. Dogg.
“I am sure we disagree about a lot of things, but you expressed interest in being interviewed about chemtrails,” I wrote (referencing another conspiracy theory about the contrails left by jet engines — he’s into that, too). “I was hoping you could explain to me a bit more how you came to believe that chemtrails are poisoning, killing, sickening and controlling the population.”
A few hours later, he wrote back.
“NOTHING ever debunked Pizzagate , you lying [expletives] . But please, son of a [very creative expletive] , tell what you or your bosses claim debunked it.”
It went on like this for a while, and then Red Dogg stopped responding.
Civility has its limits. But reviving civility is less about winning over conspiracy theorists or respecting the racist viewpoints of neo-Nazis marching in the streets and more about honoring the humanity of our neighbors and friends.
At the meetinghouse in Damariscotta, where the chairmen of the Lincoln County Democratic and Republican parties both showed up to listen, civility at least seemed to get off on the right foot.
“Things cannot continue this way,” Dick Mayer, the Republican chairman, said after the workshop. “We could be moving into very dangerous ground.” At the meeting, Mayer, who took over as party chairman in July, and Democratic counterpart Chris Johnson set a date to meet for coffee.
Lincoln County is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans — Hillary Clinton topped Trump by just 500 votes here in 2016. But conservatives were outnumbered about 10 to 1 at the workshop — not surprising, given that the event was organized by the Lincoln County chapter of the progressive activist organization Indivisible (although the local group takes a less partisan approach than the national movement’s explicitly progressive, anti-Trump mission would suggest).
The whole notion of deliberation and discussion tends to draw a better response from the left, Lukensmeyer said, but Mayer’s promotion of the event helped. “If you make contact with the right leadership,” Lukensmeyer said, “we have not had any trouble recruiting conservatives and Republicans.”
Whether workshops and text-message trainings, videos, and civility pledges can make much of a dent in our poisoned discourse is an open question. Leadership matters, as Lukensmeyer said, and neither Maine, with Governor Paul LePage at the helm, nor the United States is likely to see much in the way of trickle-down civility from the highest levels of government.
But in Ohio, one of three other states where the effort is focused, two state lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle learned a bit about each other through the initiative and collaborated on a bill about adoption, Lukensmeyer said. Seeing the humanity in one another can limit legislative conflict to the areas where we truly disagree, instead of reflexively opposing everything “the enemy” asks for.
For most of us, the scale is considerably smaller. In Maine, Marie Erskine and her husband, Jim, came to the workshop hoping to find a way to broker a truce between their two daughters, whose opposing politics have created conflict in the family.
“It’s been upsetting for Jim and me,” Erskine said. “I think it would be wonderful to be able to talk with people and understand why they think the way they do, without getting defensive.”
From your lips to Dogg’s ear, Marie.