"I think that we live in a time when people are extremely intolerant of listening to things they don't agree with…. There is the argument that allowing things you don't believe in to be said is somehow legitimizing it. I don't believe that to be right, because in an academic community there's no such thing as free speech without response.
~ Leon Botstein, President Bard College
"May you live in interesting times."
This ancient curse, of unknown origin, speaks to the fact that the "uninteresting" times are generally quiet and peaceful, with not a lot going on. And the "interesting times" are often fraught with anxiety. At best.
The curse comes to mind a lot lately. One of those "interesting times" happened recently when a local teenager wore a T-shirt with a political slogan on it to a school patriotic day. What was most interesting to me was not that the principal asked her to change the shirt or cover the slogan, but rather the behavior of the girl’s parents. Instead of reacting with rage or self-righteousness, as we’ve come to expect these days in such circumstances, they responded with civility, reason, and respect.
Rather than vilify the other ‘side’, they treated the issue as one shared by the whole community. They took the opportunity to discuss ways of disagreeing without making anyone bad or evil for holding a different opinion. And the community responded and took part in a relaxed, respectful group conversation.
Civility doesn’t mean giving in, it means listening with sincerity, and advocating with respect. An idea may be wrong, but it doesn’t mean the person holding that idea is wrong or bad or evil. Yet how often do we make that leap these days?
Do you have a brother, sister, parent, coworker or friend who has different religious or political beliefs from yours? Do you avoid talking about your different viewpoints? Do the conversations devolve into a name-calling shouting match? Or can you be curious about why they think and feel differently?
Disagreement Is Good
I have some strong beliefs, too, and there are people in the media today who, for one reason or another, make me turn away in disgust. Personal experience tells me how much I still have to learn about practicing curiosity instead of certainly, and about being open-minded instead of judgmental, condescending, and sarcastic.
Because it’s not about the belief, the rhetoric or the T-shirt, it’s about losing the ability to listen to each other. To hear what we have to say and to offer our own view, always remembering that certainty is a myth, and we only progress by testing our ideas, and being ready to adopt a new idea if it’s a better one.
Disagreement is not bad, it’s good. The collision of ideas creates new ideas. We seem to forget that a lot these days, one of the things that makes these times so interesting.
So let’s celebrate the instances of civility, the times when people find a way to talk about their differences calmly, when they see disagreement as positive, as an opportunity to reach a higher, stronger agreement. And perhaps the times will start to become less interesting.
Please comment below, especially if you have an "uninteresting" story to share about witnessing or participating in a civil dialogue about a tough topic.
Thanks and good ki!
P.S. Learn conflict and communication skills in my new book: Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace.
Main photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service