Be Civil, or Be Quiet
I am by nature, a peacekeeper; even the enneagram agrees. Well, I can’t be sure it’s nature, it may be conditioning as a result of growing up around a lot of conflict. Either way, I prioritize peace, but when that tendency is indulged I can become conflict avoidant.
A wise therapist once suggested that instead of avoiding conflicts, I am actually trading external conflicts for internal ones. An “aha moment”….Yes, I would rather argue with myself than with someone who may misunderstand me, become defensive or angry, or use illogical arguments. When you are playing both sides of the debate, both arguments make sense, and the only solution is to integrate them- otherwise, the disagreement goes on and on.
Avoiding conflicts can negatively affect our relationships in a whole variety of ways, so I am not suggesting such a strategy. But all this practice arguing with myself has made me more comfortable with the tension of seeing opposing sides and knowing they can co-exist without agreeing, and I even discovered that there is truth to be found in the places where those sides merge.
What I’ve really been doing all these years is dialoguing with myself, even before I knew that dialogue is a skill. Because winning is not the goal, and because I trust my own points to be made out of good faith with no hidden agendas, I can really get curious about what comes up and I am free to focus on insights rather than what is right or wrong.
Although they are pretty painful to witness, discussions on social media have given me more of an awareness of what unhealthy conflict looks like. There are heaps of examples of every bad debate tactic possible, all of the logical fallacies imaginable, and loads of arguments dripping in cognitive biases everywhere you turn. Generally speaking, most of us are pretty rotten when it comes to healthy conflicts and productive dialogue.
Blame the Brain?
We can totally blame our brains. We can point to all the ways the brain is designed to categorize, look for the negative, act out of fear, confirm its biases, and prejudge people. But to blame the brain is to pass the buck. To blame the brain is to admit that you are willfully choosing to operate without employing the higher levels of awareness that you are blessed with as a human being.
We are not lizards. We are equipped to think about thinking. It’s possible to witness our thoughts, and (mostly) choose how to respond to them and when to act on them. We have the ability to view positive and negative and synthesize them into an integrated viewpoint. We have the ability to notice paradox and sit in the tension that paradox naturally creates.
Carl Jung said “The paradox is one of our most valuable spiritual possessions…only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.” Having healthy conflicts, and engaging in dialogue requires embracing paradox. Can you respect another, while deeply disagreeing with their views? Can you have compassion for someone who doesn’t have compassion for you? Can you seek to understand even when you feel misunderstood?
If not, start with yourself. You can feel brave and afraid at the same time, just as you can feel fierce and kind, or feel both grief and joy. Do you even really feel one of those things without at least a bit of the other? If you can accept those tensions within yourself, you can then extend them to your feelings towards others.
If you have the ability to transcend the basic tendencies of your brain, and sit in all the space that exists between good and bad- dwelling in paradox, it is your responsibility to do so. There is no black and white, and very little right and wrong.
Know Civility, Know Peace
As much as I would like to stay away from conflict, I am strengthening my commitment to speak truth to bullshit, while being civil. These are the words of Brene Brown, from her book Braving the Wilderness and I believe they represent so accurately the aims of a peacekeeper like me who is really weary of witnessing all the unhealthy conflict in the world. The level of disrespect, lack of perspective-taking, and self-righteousness is enough to make a debate champion go offline.
Civil is the keyword here. There are all kinds of people out there who think they are speaking their truth, think they are doing “good”- but often they are not being civil. “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading another in the process.” It is about disagreeing without disrespect and seeking common ground as a dialogue about differences.
If at a young age, if I had been taught how to speak my truth in a civil way, maybe I would have still turned into a peacekeeper, while also marching right up to conflict with the confidence to transform it into a dialogue. Not only are few of us being taught these skills, but it seems that our current cultural trend is to reward unhealthy conflict. We praise those who speak their truth, even when they have no regard for civility while at the same time silencing those who offend us. Do we even care about the impact of our words, or if they are even true at all? And if we value self-expression so highly, how can we call for censorship at the same time? This is not a paradox, this is a self-righteous and short-sided double standard.
If you blatantly disregard civility, I’d prefer you just kept quiet. Truth is not yours to put upon others, and your personal beliefs do not equal Truth. Truth is uncovered when we find common ground. The goal of dialogue is insight, and that is the place where truth is found. It comes from thinking together, not from deciding what is right and shaming others into agreeing with you.
This is a call to become more civil and to learn the skill of dialogue. This course, Thinking Together is a great place to start. If you’d like to go through this course with a group of folks set on achieving shared understanding or respectful disagreement, find more on joining our online community here.