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Civility or Civil War

We live in an increasingly divided country. This is the inevitable result of growing as rapidly as America has. As of December, 2018, the Census Bureau tells me we have 329.1 million people living in the United States. When I was born, in 1962, there were only 186.54 million of us here. In my short lifetime, our population has increased by more than 75%. There’s no evidence of our growth slowing at all.

So, it’s not surprising that we have more disagreements. The more people there are, the more cause we have to disagree.

When I was born there was no discussion about transgender rights. There was no debate about gay rights. There was little concern about Muslims. Welfare was just beginning to transform. And the idea that black people should have equal rights was just beginning to form, at all, at least on the national stage. Abortion was unsafe and illegal. Health insurance was still in its infancy. There were fewer bankruptcies due to health costs in the 1960s than there are now. Health care, however, is substantially better now than it was then. There was little, if any, debate about a Wall. But all of these things, and many others, have become cause for disagreements in the past few decades.

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. I’m not even entirely confident in my ability to formulate the questions presented by these concerns intelligently. But I feel sure the only way we will be able to solve any of the problems that are inherent in a large society is to discuss them. The objective of the discussion, though, can’t be just to win. The objective must be to find solutions.

This requires getting others to see things from our perspective. But it also means learning to see things from the perspectives of others. If I understand not only what a person thinks or feels, but why that person thinks or feels that way, I gain both the advantage of the possibility of my own perspective changing, and the opportunity to address the deeper issues that cause the disagreement in the first place. My mind can change. And I now have a better chance of changing the mind of another person.

The answer may sometimes be to compromise. But it can’t always be. There are places where we must refuse simply to agree to disagree. There are many causes for compromise to be impossible. If I’m unwilling to tolerate any genocide, then I can’t compromise and say, “You want to exterminate 6 million people. I want you to kill 0. So, we’ll split the difference and agree that you can murder 3 million people.”

If, however, I can understand why this leader intends to commit genocide, I can determine whether a solution can be reached. If it’s simply that the leader gets joy from killing, then he’s just an evil bastard, and nothing can be done. Military action is required.

I’m reminded, though, of Kodos, The Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode, “The Conscience of The King.” He was the Governor of a planet with 8,000 residents, and their food supply went bad. Instead of allowing all 8,000 to starve, he ordered the execution of 4,000, so the remainder could survive on the food that was left. I don’t think he was inherently evil. I think he was in an untenable situation. The problem could have been solved without bloodshed if food could have been gotten.

In order to reach solutions, we need to understand not only the problems, but their causes, and the motivations of those who disagree with us.

This cannot be achieved, however, if we don’t behave in civil ways. Why?

The moment a conservative calls me a “Libtard” I’m done listening to him. He’s not interested in solving problems. He’s interested in schoolyard name calling. The epithet does nothing to advance his argument, and he has now shut down the chance that I’m going to gain the understanding necessary to change my mind.

If I tell someone they’re stupid, I’m wildly unlikely to change their minds. They have no more reason to listen to me, and I have shut down my own opportunity.

If we’re going to solve problems, we need to discuss them in civil ways. We need to address ideas, and not people. We need to think clearly, and do our best to make sure the arguments we offer are logically sound. We must not be persuaded by fallacious arguments or unconsidered ideology. We have to guard against Confirmation Bias, or the problem of believing what we want to believe without scrutinizing it as carefully as what we dislike. But most of all, we need to understand one another. And civility is a first step toward that understanding.

With our country and our world growing at a dizzying pace, it becomes urgent that we begin to solve some of our problems now, before the ever deepening divides finally tear us apart, and we find ourselves at war. While you and I can’t change the world, we can change our portions of it. If we begin with Civility, perhaps we don’t have to end in Civil War.