Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Civility and Understanding

Over at Family Scholars Blog, I have been engaged in offline conversations about civility and a revised comment policy for the site. One of the main reasons I chose to be a guest blogger there was because I believe that David and Elizabeth are sincerely interested in cultivating a space where civil dialogue could occur among those who disagree, sometimes even strongly, about issues related to family, law, and society.

One of the biggest barriers to civil dialogue is, I believe, the failure to understand those with whom we disagree.  I further believe that this lack of understanding often pertains to what kind of people our opponents are, the intentions of our opponents, and the substantive points our opponents are making.

The first type of ignorance is oftentimes apparent in the language that is used to describe our opponents.  For, the language that is used to describe the other side often determines whether or not dialogue with those on the other side can even productively take place.  I read many blogs written by those with whom I disagree, including, most often, those who oppose feminism and equality for LGBT people. One of the biggest give-aways that I'm reading someone who has no clue about the people whose rights they so strongly oppose is the way they characterize us- "us," in this case, being feminists and LGBT advocates.

Rather than presenting the other side as nuanced human beings who have good and sincere reasons for supporting our policy positions, I often see feminists monolithically portrayed as man-hating, "hairy-legged feministas," and "abortion lustists." (Yes, seriously).  I see gay people widely portrayed as "homofascist bullies," "predators," and evil, slatternly members of "the lifestyle left." 

And yes, I also read many blogs by those with whom I agree about feminism and LGBT rights.  There, I sometimes see opponents of feminism and LGBT rights monolithically portrayed as "crazies," "haters," "fundies," and "Christianists."

These caricatured descriptions, usually based almost entirely on a person's position on one or two issues, are little like most of the real-life human beings I know and have come to know.  Unfortunately, I learned early on in my blogging career that, oftentimes, my position as a feminist and a lesbian would mean that many people would not see me as a human being, but as a cartoon villain hell-bent on plotting mustache-twirling schemes to enslave men, destroy the family, and Be Super Mean To Christians.

So, when I see people using stereotypical labels and speaking very generally about their opponents, it signals to me that the person uttering such labels is likely not only uninformed, but that they (a) might not have much experience actually interacting with those on the other side, (b) they don't have much interest in actually learning more about the other side, and/or (c) they want to take the easy, and uncivil, route of acting as though everyone on the other side is a villain with only evil motives for believing what they believe or being who they are.

In relation to this site's civility policy, I would contend that part of engaging in civil dialogue with those with whom we disagree involves first making a concerted effort to better understand the other side.  This understanding comes from reading their arguments, asking questions to clarify, and also being mindful of the narratives that characterize those on the other side and that those on the other side consequently often have to deal with.

For instance, when one understands that gay men have a long history of being unfairly portrayed as predators, one might better understand why a post calling gay men predators is a signal to gay men and allies that the person calling gay men predators might not have much experience interacting with gay men, that the person might not have much interest in learning about gay men's histories, and/or that the person wants to take the easy and uncivil route of acting as though one's policy opponents are villains with evil motives for their beliefs and actions.

Reacting to the recent acts of violence in Libya, religious scholar and civility advocate Karen Armstrong reminded us of the Socratic tradition of strongly questioning every one of our certainties and received opinions. She writes:

"Try to put yourself in the position of the 'other side' ~ as the compassionate ethos demands ~ and ask yourself  'How much do I really know about their history of pain, achievement, oppression, disappointment, fear, idealism, and aspiration ~ all of which, on both sides, have contributed to this violence?'"
In our offline conversations (which I'm discussing with Elizabeth's permission), my suggestion for a new comment policy included a plea for those engaging here to be mindful of the fact that our words can hurt others even if that is not our intent.  This mindfulness is particularly important for those coming to contentious conversations with varied life experiences and histories of societal abuse and oppression.  I don't think it's practical for such a provision to be actively policed by blog moderators, but I do see this mindfulness as a good starting point if a goal of conversation here is to promote civility and understanding.

As a lesbian, for instance, I have an experience of pain, a lifetime of hurt, caused by people in positions of great power regularly telling me and others in society that gay people are fundamentally wrong, immoral, unhealthy, predatory, and/or sick.   For those who do not have his lived experience to treat the morality of homosexuality as a legitimate conversation topic, or to randomly drop inflammatory links from rabidly anti-gay sites just for the sake of presenting some other "equally valid" viewpoint, can, in some gay people, trigger a lot of.... anger, hostility, hurt, fear, and/or resentment precisely because we are already familiar with this hurtful other side and regularly have to defend ourselves against it. It is a hurtful, ignorant, and privileged assumption for non-gay people to think that gay people need to become educated about these "other sides" as "food for thought."

To be clear, my point isn't that I think hurtful topics should never be discussed.  If a person is up for talking about something even though it's difficult to do so, I say go for it. 

Rather, my point is that I think a tenet of civil conversation among mixed company would be, as Armstrong suggests, to ask ourselves first how well we truly understand the other side- not only their arguments but their history, oppressions, and experiences.  And, with that understanding, how does our contribution to the discourse further or inhibit both civility and understanding?
[Cross-posted: Family Scholars Blog]

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