It's little wonder civility is having a hard time (9/13)

September 12, 2010|By The Rev. DON STEVENSON

The right of every individual to be treated with politeness and respect is closest to the best definition of civility I know. Yet current human dialogue seems distant from this important virtue. Violations in human discourse and resultant behavior are more the norm than the exception now, or so it seems.

Are we too casual, preferring to let our feelings, emotions and opinions become the foundation of all truth? Are we more desirous of who is right than what is right? Is civility that important to us right now? Demeaning and disabling another seem to have the upper hand.

Many people think it is time to acknowledge our conflicts as irresolvable and divide into smaller entities. "Let schism and division reign," they seem to be saying. Such is the tenor and tempo of American politics these days. Let's slug it out and whoever brings the most blood and cripples the adversary is truth's gladiator.


But schism is not an option for a people who desire community and who claim that peace and wholeness are legitimate aspirations. It really isn't. It took a very bloody civil war and a half-million deaths to make that point in the 1860s.

Whatever happened to compromise? Sure, there are times when compromise can test or negate a principle, but it can also be a time when the window of truth can be opened wider. The adamant individualist will often claim that my truth is total truth and everyone else's truth is nil or secondary. Sourced in arrogance, this posture diminishes the quality of human discourse and is an obvious enemy of civility. When such vanity arises, there is a lie in the very truth that is claimed.

Could it be possible that two conflicting ideas or points of view can both be right or can both be wrong? Some are beginning to claim that there is not just one objective truth, possessed by one chest-beating individual or group, but many conflicting truths.

Might we consider that an opposing insight might be as valid as the one we hold to be true. Opposite perspectives can be equally valid and equally true, can they not? Community happens when human discourse respects a perceived adversary and intentionally looks for light that he/she might emit.

And what about the truth-validity of those endearing notions called opinions? We all have them, and we let them be known at will. An opinion is a belief based not on certainty, but what seems true or probable to the one who holds it. So we must be careful in equating our opinion about something as the very truth of something.

Should our opinions deserve the pinnacles we have built for them" Abraham Lincoln was purported to have asked, "How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Lincoln quickly answered his own question by saying, "Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

As the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts." A few months ago, there were 16,000 items found in the Google search that says, "HIV does not cause AIDS." Also, there were about 9,000 hits saying the moon landing was staged. And I am told that there were 11 times that the Wikipedia entry for "truth" was altered in one week's time.

Human discourse has culturally descended, allowing opinion to become truth and information to become knowledge. Little wonder civility is having a hard time nowadays.

The Rev. Don Stevenson is a retired UCC minister and member of Hagerstown Community College's adjunct faculty

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