I had a naive optimism when the election had completed in November a fresh wave of people would be elected and prepare themselves to act as waiters to serve our country. I had believed what would arrive at the dinner tables of America would be glasses filled with civility and we would all enjoy a meal which was to arrive at the beginning of 2019.
Needless to say, I was disturbed by what was brought to our tables. What we received was more of the same language and anger which has been characteristic of our nation since President Obama’s executive leadership. What do you say when a newly elected congresswoman calls President Trump, “motherfucker?” The response was reminiscent of my children when they were younger. “Well he did it first!”
The context of our nation’s uncommon decency did not begin in January 2017. Yes the executive leader of these United States demonstrates a lack of decorum in terms of language, a combative tone with those who would challenge his most off the wall statements, and an incessant penchant to tweet. This uncommon decency which washes over our country did not flow initially from President Trump but has been flowing out of the hearts of many persons regardless of party affiliation, ethnic community, or religious commitment. A Pew Research Study (Dimock, Kiley, Keeter, & Doherty, 2014) examined how uniformity along political ideology increased in a twenty year period between 1994 and 2014. The study sadly points to an increasing adversarial sentiment in which 38% of Democrats had very unfavorable views of Republicans, while 43% of Republicans had very unfavorable views of those holding Democratic positions. Therefore, the incivility we are experiencing has been growing through Democratic and Republican presidencies. Presidencies which have experienced impeachment, unfavorable wars, accusations of Islamic influence, and now Russian influence. President Trump is not the source but a symptom.
Sadly, these two parties have positioned themselves to dominate the public square, pitting family members, co-workers, and even persons of the same religious affiliation against one another. In the same period of 1994-2014, we also saw the rise of social media. Facebook launched in 2004 essentially eclipsing the outmoded Myspace. Two years later, Twitter and its 140 characters-now 280- would also position itself as a significant communication tool which the current President uses with fervor. The public square has now moved to the technological square where persons can hide on a phone or behind a computer screen communicating some of the most damning, damaging, and dehumanizing content without fear of reprisal.
We are all accountable for the lack of decency. This lack of decency pervades our communication devices and finds embodiment in those who position themselves as our elected leaders, whether political office or religious office. If we have arrived at this place because of our collective efforts, then it requires we as a people lay hands on the future to secure a common decency for our posterity.
Noam Chomsky, crafted an article entitled, “Humanity Imperiled: The Path to Disaster” in June 2013. In this article Dr. Chomsky examined the future of humanity considering if our path to disaster would be through ecological destruction or the penultimate of nuclear destruction. I would propose that these paths are chosen only if we continue to demonstrate an uncommon decency towards one another. If we are not willing to galvanize as peacemakers to claim decency towards one another, how much easier it is to devastate our soil or the soil of another nation for monetary gain or claims of democracy? A lack of common decency willing to dehumanize persons on social media is a slow steady descent towards more conflict, more war, and the most devastating event, mushroom clouds.
Imagine how a cup of common decency can be just what we need to stop a great dinner from becoming a food fight. We just need the waiters willing to serve.
Self-reflection has become a critical personal discipline for my life. This practice offers me the opportunity to examine actions I have taken, words spoken, and thoughts I have meditated on throughout the year. Self-reflection is a humbling practice as it allows an individual to face him or herself.
I think we are all in need of a little bit of self-reflection during this period of our societal history. We are not as holy as we make ourselves out to be on a daily basis. We are not as just and merciful to others as we would want others to be with our own actions and words. We are not as civil as we think we are in the 21st Century America.
What a strange word.
This word invokes images of peaceful interactions between persons. Persons who have equally chosen to place themselves in positions in which there are no religious, social, political, or economic hierarchies. I imagine civility as the embodiment of two human beings on a journey of questioning, discovery, and understanding.
Civility should produce friends.
Then I realized something. In order for civility to be embodied in human beings it necessitates the acknowledgement of a human being’s personhood. Rufus Burrow identifies a zeitgeist or spirit of the age in which persons are not appropriately given the consideration of their inherent worth. If I am not willing to acknowledge the dignity of the person with whom I am engaging within a form of communication the result will not be beneficial to either of us. If I desire to see civility I have to do something different.
As I reflect on this past year, I worked hard to provide a platform for people, primarily on social media, to discuss topics of race, poverty, and other social issues. Sometimes the topics went very well while other times I just shook my head and chose to delete the whole interaction. I realized I was contributing to the incivility I was seeking to reduce.
Breath changes people.
When a person feels, touches, and sees another person the opportunity for change is possible. That is what happened to John and his friends in first century Palestine with a Jewish Rabbi who embodied the breath of God. Social media is a poor platform for interaction because people are not face to face. Our ability to feel appropriately, touch a hand, and see facial expressions are significantly hindered. Social media many times creates opportunities for persons to diminish themselves through disrespectful and dehumanizing comments which prevent any type of meaningful engagement, discovery, and understanding. I have observed even the most encouraging statement can descend into ugliness.
So now as 2019 approaches I need to exhale in the presence of other living persons. I want people to recapture the power and beauty of inspiration through the virtue of human presence.
Noam Chomsky stated “freedom produces opportunity and culminates in responsibility.” I have a responsibility to people in the area in which I live to cultivate civility. Why? (Only God knows.) Whatever the case, I understand my small platform and will pursue opportunities to advance the dignity of persons.
What will this look like?
Join me for self-reflection, civility, and the opportunity to experience the breath of another human being.
Martha Nussbaum who writes on the human experience and capabilities, states, “When comparing societies and assessing them for their basic decency or justice, we ask, “What is each person able to do and to be?” We are not means to an end, human beings are the end. There are a multitude of situations which function as barriers at the social, economic, and political level slowing or in some cases stopping human beings from seeing who they truly are and what they can truly accomplish.
Persons in a variety of societal environments play a critical role in either creating barriers or tearing down barriers for persons who are to be considered neighbors. In essence we have a responsibility to each other and we have been granted the opportunity to address life which Nussbaum describes as being “entrenched with social injustice and inequality.”
Engaging in the difficult work of identifying existing barriers requires persons with different perspectives to engage with one another. We can admittedly observe our current climate has produced situations in which people have chosen to assume tribal behaviors, boundaries marked by political ideology, national origins, ethnicities, and yes, even faith.
If our goals are to build an environment to improve the situations of other persons, relieve personal and systemic injustices, and create an environment for successive generations, we must have plans which begin with the end in mind. In other words, humanizing and just outcomes necessitate humanizing and just means.
In the words of Nussbaum, we are capable of such activity in the support of problem of solving many our societal concerns, if we choose to practice them on a daily basis.