How Did We Get So Rude?
Ever come across something that takes on a deeper meaning every time you hear it? That’s how I felt when I scanned an online top 10 list of new year’s quotes and saw #8:
“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors and let every new year find you a better man.” — Benjamin Franklin
Seems like our society is increasingly mixing up the first two pieces of advice to the point where more people are at war with their neighbors and at peace with their vices, at least when it comes to rudeness. How did we get so rude? It made me think back to when I heard Mary Kramer articulate this pivotal issue.
I was in Winterset this fall when Kramer spoke to our class at Leadership Iowa, which is designed to instill passion in Iowa’s current and emerging leaders while fostering a high level of civic engagement. I saw a lot of heads nodding in agreement when Kramer, a former Republican state senator who was elected president of the Iowa Senate in 1997, tackled head-on the erosion of civil public discourse in America.
“We used to be able to debate with our adversaries without resorting to the demonization of one another,” said Kramer, a former United States Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. “Back then, debates on important issues were challenging–even fun. Demonization used to be a last resort. Now we seem to begin with it.”
Demonization involves a shift from debating issues to attacking people. If we can destroy the career or the character of someone who is “getting it all wrong,” all would be well, or at least better.
It’s noxious process, Kramer stressed. Viewing those we disagree with as the embodiment of evil results in a profound loss of perspective on the humanity of our opponents. They stop being human beings like us, who happen to disagree on some issues.
Demonization isn’t limited to politics. It has spread like a cancer into entertainment, 24-hour news, social media and beyond. Its ubiquitous presence tempts people to cross the line between civility and rudeness without a second thought.
It also distorts reality. Just because someone passionately believe in something, does that belief allow him or her to mandate these views on everyone else?
Not here, where generations of Americans have honored our heritage of meeting together, sharing information about a broad range of issues and seeking common ground. While our history isn’t one of perfect unity (far from it), we still found a way to move forward for the common good.
Let’s learn from the past and remind ourselves that the keys to combating this current rash of rudeness aren’t complex. They just require some human decency, a little kindness and a willingness to start with one key question: what problem are we trying to solve? I agree with Kramer that working together to agree on the problem statement often introduces common ground.
• Next, listen. Too often we underestimate the power of truly listening to others. Listen with curiosity, rather than “listening” with the intent to reply.
• Ask clarifying questions. Try to understand why people believe the way they do. Don’t just rush to judgement. Ask sincere (not snarky) questions, and try to discover what motivates someone to feel the way they do. As a writer who has interviewed thousands of people, I’m still sometimes shocked by the answers people give me. Plus, their viewpoints either challenge me to reconsider my own views or at least clarify why I believe what I believe.
• Acknowledge the validity of the other person’s position. While you don’t have to agree with someone’s viewpoint, you can and should acknowledge their position. Consider a controversial topic like water quality. Even if I don’t agree with someone’s opinion about the way to address this challenge, I can acknowledge this person’s concerns and validate the goal of clean, healthy drinking water.
Sure, not everyone who disagrees with you will follow this advice. Still, you’ve set the stage for more productive conversations, rather than head-on collisions propelled by rudeness.
Also, be encouraged by these words that Kramer came across years ago and shared with us at Leadership Iowa:
• Iowa is the place where the dream still lives.
• Iowa is the America we grew up believing in. It is liberty bought by hard work and integrity.
• It’s the belief that the future will be even better than today if we will work to make it that way.
So – can we talk? More important, can we listen?
P.S. Thanks for joining me. I’m glad you’re here.
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