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Practicing Civility in an Uncivil Age

“Therefore, putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” – Ephesians 4:25, RSV

In 1949, I was in the eighth grade at Roosevelt Junior High School in San Diego, watching with my classmates, for teaching purposes, a black and white film depicting an automobile crash.

At the end of the film, Mr. Grant, our teacher, asked the class to tell him what we saw, but despite having seen the same film, we saw different things.

The lesson I learned that day 67 years ago, remains fixed in my mind; having taught me you cannot expect agreement from classmates, family or friends, even when you have examined the same evidence.

Because of that lesson I have been loathe these many years to call someone “stupid” because their views differ from mine.

Over many years and many op-eds, only once did I use “stupid” to describe those I was in disagreement with. What gave rise to its invocation were those who said Barack Obama wasn’t born in the USA, and his presidency, therefore, was unlawful; the Constitution requiring, they reminded us, that presidents be born in the United States.

You cannot expect agreement from classmates, family or friends, even when you have examined the same evidence.

They are still among us, even as the president’s eight years in the Oval Office nears its denouement.

Which brings me to one of my primary concerns for 2017 – how do we practice civility in an uncivil age?

Since we almost certainly will not find common ground on issues and policies effected by President Trump, we must, I believe, respectfully require of family and friends, when opinions on matters before the country are offered, to cite evidence.

Of course, in an age of “fake news,” or what the OED calls, “post-truth,” finding “common ground” on evidence represents a major challenge.

During the presidential campaign, I received an email from a retired high school history teacher, expressing outrage that Michelle Obama’s mother, who has been living in the White House to oversee her granddaughters, would retire from that responsibility with an annual pension of $160,000. My high school teacher friend wrote he had taught in public schools for more than 30 years and his pension was a fraction of what Mrs. Obama’s mother would be paid.

The source of his anger? A story in the Boston Tribune.

Reading his email I thought that can’t be true. I have serious Boston connections, but had never heard of the “Boston Tribune.” With good reason. There is no such newspaper.

By going to Google, it took me less than sixty seconds to prove the story false. I shared that with my teacher friend, and said he should be embarrassed to have fallen for a totally fabricated, fake news story. In other words, he believed a lie.

But then I wondered about other people reading the same story, believing the same lie. Men and women who hadn’t taught high school history, who didn’t have master degrees in education.

I have a friend now living in Colorado, who had been the personal assistant to one of San Diego’s greatest civic leaders and philanthropists. She’s a good person, truly, but I have been dismayed by how many Facebook postings of hers were based on completely fake news – including one that said President Obama had ruled public school children would no longer be permitted to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag. In her posting, many of her Facebook friends clicked the “like” button, others commented that the president was wrong to take the Pledge away from schools. Obviously, neither my Colorado friend nor her friends understand the president has no such authority. But the lie went viral.

What is so upsetting about fake news is the means of disproving it is no more than a click away on your computer, laptop, or smart phone. If you have a question, ask Google. Scroll through the options, read several, see if there’s a common thread, and if there is, such as disproving the $160,000 pension for Mrs. Obama’s mother, trust it. And if you want additional proof, go to Wikipedia for further verification (I find Wikipedia indispensable).

When speaking to high school or college students, I always point out, “If you have access to the Internet, you have no excuse for ignorance. None!”

Clearly, disagreements abound on any subject, often serious disagreements. We can’t change that, but, in the spirit of Ephesians 4:25, we need to speak truth to family and friends, and ask their disagreements be factually based, that they have weighed the evidence. And, if they have not, then you must, for the sake of your own conscience, for the integrity of your own being, for the sanctity of your own soul, confront them in their ignorance – “let everyone speak the truth.”

Practicing civility in uncivil times is a challenge, but we avoid it at our peril – as the future of our Republic is at risk.

I close by reminding us of what Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor in Hitler’s Germany, famously said:

“When the Nazis came for the communists, I did not speak out; as I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I did not speak out; I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; as I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out; as I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”

Will you speak up?

Photo Credit: Olivier Le Moal / shutterstock.com