The Way it Ought to Be… Finding the concept of civil discourse

The Way it Ought to Be… Finding the concept of civil discourse

The Way it Ought to Be… Have we lost the concept of civil discourse?

by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

It begins with the way we are teaching our children.

At the conclusion of his news broadcast on CBS each weekday evening, Walter Cronkite would shuffle the sheaf of papers on his anchor desk, raise his eyes to the camera, and deliver his signature sign-off: “And that’s the way it is.” It was one of the first consistent taglines on television. There have been others, such as Charles Osgood’s “See you on the radio” and “We’re in touch, so you be in touch” from ABC’s news magazine 20/20. Entertainment shows followed, like Carol Burnett’s famous ear tug, a secret message to her grandmother, and the current The View which asks us to “take a little time to enjoy the view.” Rachel Maddow thanks viewers for “joining us this hour” and Ellen DeGeneres implores them to “be kind to one another” when she signs off.

DeGeneres found herself the focus of attention within the cesspool of social media recently after attending a Dallas Cowboys game with former president George W. Bush. DeGeneres, a well-known member of and advocate for the LBGTQ community, and Bush, who was resistant to protecting LGBTQ rights, sat next to each other and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. DeGeneres was hysterically vilified on Twitter for fraternizing (or sororizing) with the enemy.

DeGeneres addressed the kerfuffle on her next show. “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say ‘Be kind to one another” I don’t mean only people that think the same way you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

What a concept! Our society seems to have become so embroiled in “us vs. them” attitudes that we have lost the concept of civil discourse. We can’t seem to agree to disagree and find common ground. The online cesspool has moved offline and creeps deeper into our lives every day. What’s important to realize is that it begins with the way we are teaching our children.

On a recent trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, I was struck by how divided and separated the city remains. When the Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement, most of us on this side of the pond thought the issues had been resolved and Protestants and Catholics would now live in harmony. But when I toured neighborhoods in which violence is still a frequent occurrence, I learned that our dreams of peace do not quite stand up to the light of day. Walls, actual concrete walls, longer and sometimes higher than the Berlin Wall, still separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. On certain days, the gates between the neighborhoods are closed and checkpoints set up. A full generation after the Good Friday Agreement, the deadliest violence has stopped but animosity and division survive.

While touring these neighborhoods, my guide explained that the Protestant holidays were two weeks away. We saw whole families preparing to celebrate by gathering huge piles of wood for bonfires. Late night ceremonies would burn in effigy significant members of the other side, including the current Pope. Children worked alongside parents and grandparents, stockpiling wood for the conflagrations which would follow daily parades. The gates would be closed and guarded on each of these evenings to keep the two sides apart.

I was shocked and depressed to realize that the issues have not been resolved. Children are still being taught to hate those on the other side of the wall.

I learned on my tour that the Troubles in Northern Ireland involved many other complex issues besides religious beliefs. Underlying grievances concerning economics and discrimination helped fuel the violent protests of the 70s and 80s. Yet my guide confirmed that religion is how each faction primarily identifies itself. Both sides share an Irish heritage, but the identification as Protestant or Catholic is fundamental and decisive– and deeply divisive.

From the point of view of an American former Catholic who now attends an Episcopal church (which originated in the Church of England, the very church attended by Protestant Northern Irish), the fundamental beliefs of the two confessions seem substantially, if not totally, the same. I feel no conflict between the church I was born into and the one I transitioned into. Not to trivialize, but it’s a little like growing up loving baseball as either a Red Sox or a Yankees fan: both fan nations love the game of baseball, but identify with different teams. While I will always be a Red Sox fan, I understand that fundamentally, Yankee fans love the same game I love, though their devotion clothes itself in a different uniform.

If we do not teach our children tolerance and civil discourse, the morass of discontent within society will grow far worse than the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.

The Way it Ought to Be… Have we lost the concept of civil discourse?

We do not need to abandon our fundamental beliefs; we simply need to acknowledge that another person’s different beliefs do not make that person evil and do not threaten our own beliefs. No one is trying to force us Red Sox fans to don pinstripes.

We may not put up physical walls within our own country, but we continue to build attitudinal walls around us and our group. Until those walls are broken down and we allow our children’s minds to develop and explore without ideological boundaries, our social divisions will persist and widen.

My tour guide lived through the Troubles. He acknowledged that it is probably too late for his own generation to reconcile with their counterparts. But he cautioned that if they continue to teach prejudice and hatred to their children, there is no hope for the cycle of division to end. “We won’t see these neighborhoods ever seeing eye to eye in our lifetimes,” he lamented. He warned that the violence that plagued the region for generations could resurface at any time. “The peace accord continues to be precarious,” he fretted, “and it won’t take much for each side to put down their Guinness and pick up a rifle.”

On our side of the pond, we can hope for better. While there have always been different sides to every issue, policy and election, it seems that recently tensions have risen to the level of a “cold civil war.” We can’t accept such divisiveness. We don’t have the bitter history of Belfast to struggle with. We can teach our children that there is a better way.

Uncle Walter was soothing when he intoned each evening, “And that’s the way it is.” But today, it might be necessary to say, “Just because that’s the way it is, let’s not think it always has to be that way.” Change is hard to implement, and even harder to instill in our children. But with substantial effort and a little creativity, we might be able to make our sign-off line more hopeful:

“Be kind to one another and take a little time to enjoy the view, because that’s the way it ought to be.”

See you on the radio. [Shuffle papers. Tug ear.]

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