Today I attended two discussions on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and its aftermath. The first was with adults, in a Forum at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, comprised of Members and friends ranging in age from 20s to over-60s, many an advanced degree and professional career among them. The second was with our Coming of Age class, a spirited group of 12- and 13-year-olds. One of the discussions was thoughtful, intelligent, respectful and, I felt, valuable and healing for those present. The other was too often angry, impolite, aggressive, and condescending.
I’ll give you one guess which was which.
Today, the children in our community showed up the adults. They demonstrated that you can discuss heated topics – topics which inspire legitimate anger, frustration, and hurt – in a way which allows everybody to be heard and which upholds the dignity of each discussant. They didn’t all agree – not remotely – but they disagreed with restraint, respect, and grace. I was proud of them.
The adults, not so much. We begun with general cluelessness and went downhill from there. It wasn’t pretty. There were raised voices, there was interrupting, there was swearing and derisive laughter. In general, the atmosphere was unpleasant. Some people left, others were clearly upset. I was upset, despite my British stiff upper lip. We did not provide a model of civil discourse.
This is important, I think. Civility is not the most important value. There are times when incivility is warranted and useful – and times like that arise frequently during events such as those we are seeing in St. Louis right now. Incivility can be an effective jolt to a complacent mind – or a complacent system which is harming people. Individuals under duress and suffering from oppression cannot reasonably be expected to be civil while the world tramples on them. “Get your fucking boot off my neck!” is a perfectly valid response – even a dignified one. When a community is under attack, the powerful often use calls for “civility” to silence legitimate attempts at self-defense. I am angry about what is happening in St. Louis – I have spent much of the last few days in a state of constant teeth-gritting fury – and I think a measure of anger is healthy. It is right to be angry at injustice.
At the same time, we must preserve some spaces for civil discussion. Without them we risk being unable to engage with people who do not understand an issue, or who simply take a different view. We lose an opportunity to learn and a technique we might use to change people’s minds. In the most extreme forms of incivility, we begin to dehumanize others, seeing them not as people with (in our minds) mistaken views, but merely as carriers for opinions we despise. When people feel attacked and threatened by others, instead of heard and respected, they are far less likely to genuinely think about their positions. To let go of our beliefs takes comfort and courage, and incivility banishes both. Furthermore, in a congregational community like ours, everyone has to live with each other after the dust has settled. If we don’t want to break our community apart, we cannot allow disagreements to become divisions which drive people irrevocably apart.
The marked contrast between these two discussions reminded me of the importance of carefully structuring space for discussion around difficult issues. We were successful with our young people partly because we laid out explicit expectations for behavior beforehand, and because we managed those expectations more closely than we did with the adults. We implicitly understand that kids’ spaces have to be tended very carefully if the kids are to grow, but we tend to let adults fend for themselves. We recognize that kids require a nurturing and loving atmosphere if we are to help them be their best, but we think adults can take a knock. We told our kids exactly how they should speak to each other, and we were clear when those boundaries were violated. With the adults, we let it slide. We care for and respect our kids even if they express strange, uninformed, or even wicked ideas. When adults do this, we are sometimes too quick to judge instead of listen.
At times like this, with tensions running high and mutual misunderstanding the norm, that is unwise. While we should expect adults to be more responsible than children, and can fairly judge adults in ways it would be unfair to judge children, we should still seek to nurture, love, and respect other people even as we disagree with them. Our concern for their personhood must always be a primary factor. If we’re going to talk about Ferguson, we’ll have to start treating the adults a little bit more like we treat the kids.
That might not be a bad idea in general.