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The Civility Challenge: Part 3

In my two previous posts on civility in our larger society I detailed why I think it's important and proposed some small steps that I have found useful in enhancing my own level of civility--and I say that as someone who has strong opinions on political and cultural issues.

I have a few final suggestions on steps to take to help bring about a more civil tone in your own life. Again, these are based on things I've tried and found useful. The steps I suggested in my post yesterday were fairly small and require a few mental adjustments. These are a little more challenging and require a bit of action--although not all that much.

1. Get out of the echo chamber. Yes, it can be comforting and entertaining to be around people who think like you do. I'm all for that. I spend a lot of my time with others of a like mind. Part of that is a natural result of the way we organize ourselves in society. I also tend to consume media that comes from a similar viewpoint. But try getting out of the echo chamber. A steady diet of talk radio or MSNBC will confirm you in your opinion of the rightness of your opinions. Sure, it can be entertaining and satisfying to hear your views expressed forcefully and I'm not saying it's wrong. But, honestly, it's the intellectual equivalent of marrying your cousin and it can have the same effect--intellectual inbreeding. Keep listening to your favorite radio station, reading your favorite blog, whatever. But, occasionally, try reading a column by a thoughtful, intelligent person on the other side of the spectrum. You don't have to agree, but just try to listen and understand their argument and point of view. You can still disagree, but at least take the trouble to know you know what you are disagreeing with.

This is hard. I started trying to expand my diet of information and some of my views were challenged. It was uncomfortable and I didn't like it. Some of my views changed. Some didn't. Incidentally, those that didn't change are stronger because I challenged them.

If you are really enlightened, try making friends with someone who disagrees with you and ask their opinion about something. Just listen. Don't argue or try to convince.

Bonus: I double-dog-dare you to learn to say, sincerely, "That's a good point."

2. Related to this: Realize that you are probably just as ideological as the next person. Your news source is really probably just as biased as those on the other side who you abhor. Fox News has a viewpoint. Undeniably. So does the New York Times, NPR, National Review, The Nation and so on. It's the reality of human nature. We all have biases and prejudices and complete objectivity is not possible.

In my doctoral program, I was trained in qualitative research. A fundamental tenet of this research is that the researcher needs to constantly be aware that he or she is likely to be biased, but that these biases will be unconscious, and therefore, difficult to detect. The way to counter this is to write a statement in which you describe in detail your feelings about the subject you are studying. You put this at the beginning of your research and that way, a reader knows where you are coming from and can judge your results accordingly.

Why not do this? Just admit that you are probably biased. As flawed mortals, we cannot see perfect Truth. So, just acknowledge that you are coming from a certain place and that your news sources probably are too. That doesn't mean they are wrong or evil or untrue. Just be aware of it and balance it out.

3. Okay, here's a big one. If you are religious: render undo God's the things which are God's, and unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar's--in that order. Neither the Republican nor Democratic parties (nor the Libertartians, Greens, or anyone else) is God's Kingdom on the Earth. I could use the Bible and make a pretty good case why the conservatives are right on some issues--and I could do the same for the progressives on other issues. It defies reason that any one party or school of thought is going to be right 100% of the time on everything. So, let's demonstrate a bit of humility. Try letting your religious convictions drive your political beliefs instead of vice versa. This has the effect of grounding your politics in a moral sensibility and takes away some of the harshness. If you're not religious, let your larger moral framework drive your politics rather than vice versa.

Be consistent in this. If adultery is wrong, it's equally wrong when it's a Republican or Democrat and the penalty ought to be the same. Period.

Please, if you are a Mormon, take this seriously. I will admit a pet peeve of mine is people who use the Church's teachings to buttress their political positions--and then conveniently ignore other teachings that don't square so well. Maddening. We should not be Democratic Mormons or Republican Mormons. We should be Mormons who vote one way or another.

4. Don't rejoice in another person's tragedy. If your primary reaction to someone's misfortune is that it advances your cause, or embarrasses your opponents, you are losing your humanity.

5. Don't arrogate to yourself the power to define the parameters of the debate. This happens a lot with individual people basically deciding that they simply won't accept ideological contradicting evidence and will simply not allow it rather than considering and responding to it. Don't scoff at the sincere, considered beliefs of others. If you end up attacking your opponent's personal traits or beliefs instead of his or her arguments, you are being intellectually dishonest and lazy.

These are all fairly simple things and I don't pretend they are deep or profound. However, to the extent I've applied them, they have had a profound effect in my own life.

Braden Bell is a husband, father, director, teacher, and writer. The author of The Road Show, Braden blogs at

Photo Credit: Dennis Agle, Mormon Daddy Blogs

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