Civility Amidst Polarized Politics
Douglas Taylor

I’m gonna start by giving you all some advice. If you ever publish a letter to the editor or a guest editorial in the local paper do not, unless you are a glutton for punishment, read the posted comments of the online version for your letter. Jean Rose-Klein published a short article this week and I took a quick glance through the online comments (and here I admit I do not follow my own advice) to see the usual storm of accusation, denial, posturing, and frustrating carelessness flung across my computer screen. In fairness, I will point out that there are, among the posts ‘removed for violating the guidelines of discourse,’ a few thoughtful and interesting posts that are worth reading. Unfortunately it is not worth sifting through the garbage-posts to find them. As a forum for discussion differing views, the online anonymity style is a failure.

Our society dearly needs a functional forum where differing political and social perspectives can be shared with civility. We, the people, are too easily isolated into our homogeneous niches lest we stumble across the reality of a well stated alternative position that might cause us to engage. Today, during the service I invite you to participate in just such an open forum conversation. Following the sermon and before the closing hymn I will open up the floor for any response you might have to this topic and what I have shared. So I invite you now to consider your own life and how you are with these issues.

The reading for this morning ends with the historian’s observation “The United States only stabilized as a nation when it gave up the dream of being a one-party utopia and accepted the existence of political opposition as crucial to maintaining a democracy.” [from Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz, p314] Thus, one could extrapolate, that our current political woes may be the instability of too many of us picking that one-party utopian dream back up. According to this historical perspective, one of the great hallmarks of our nation is the Freedom of Speech and how that freedom allows different perspectives to be heard and ultimately for truth to work its way to the top of the political milieu. If, however, we stop listening to different views, stop attempting to ‘embrace error’ for the sake of promoting truth, then we grow stuck in our own conceptions and misconceptions with no way of uncovering the difference between them. It is a problem.

What we are seeing and hearing now from our elected leaders and news commentators is not good. We hear one called a fascist and another, a racist. Rude comments about lipstick on pigs pass for good-natured colloquial commentary. And the use of violence is implied when someone uses the cross hairs of a gun site to mark political opponents, and another quips ‘if they bring a knife to a fight, we’ll bring a gun.’ And then there is the back drop of the angry rallies on both sides of the political railing, each comparing the other side’s leader to ‘Hitler’

About a month and a half back the topic of political civility became a major issue. U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding a “Congress on your Corner” event at a local grocery store when a man opened fire killing 6 people and seriously wounding many others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Fascinatingly, rather than focusing on gun control or mental health issues, we turned our attention to the conversation of civility.

One interesting response offered by congress was to mix up the decades-tradition of segregating the chamber seating arrangements for the president’s address to Congress later that January. They decided, as a gesture of civility to honor Representative Giffords, to sit as all Republicans on one side and all Democrats on the other. I looked at a seating chart of the event and I will say I was impressed that it was not only a few lawmakers – the chamber seating was really well mixed. And, granted, while this was merely symbolic it was still remarkable.

Not that I think the January 8th shootings in Tuscan were motivated by the increase in polarizing and vitriolic political rhetoric as some have suggested. Quickly after the shooting pundits and regular people started asking, “What is the connection, if any, between political rhetoric and violent acts?” The tone of our political discourse, I suspect is not the cause, but rather another symptom of the same malady afflicting our nation. I don’t know what motivated the shooter on January 8th to take the actions he did. But to lay the blame at the feet of the former governor of Alaska, for example, is only to perpetuate the rhetoric we claim to be the problem.

A colleague of mine (Rev. Roger Fritts in his 1-0-11 sermon “Polarized) pointed out a study done a few years ago in which researchers interviewed people in prison for assassination or assassination attempts. The study did not find these assassins and would-be-assassins to be politically motivated. Instead, the finding showed that overwhelmingly these people felt invisible. Many of them, prior to their attack, struggled with job loss, failures in school or in significant relationships. Their stories are littered with experience after experience of failure. A significant goal in their choice of target was to gain instant fame. These assassins and would-be-assassins were motivated not by politics but by a desire to overcome failure through notoriety. And while I do not know if such was the case for the shooter in Tuscan last month, the profile seems to fit. [“Fame Through Assassination: A Secret Service Study” National Public Radio, Morning Edition, January 14, 2011. Alix Spiegel.]

Indirectly, however, I am sure the tone and atmosphere of violence in our society has an impact. We model for our children and for all society an acceptance of violence and meanness. Our society offers these models and reinforces the tendencies to use the vitriol and hate as common forms of discourse.

Here is a local example to chew on. At the Vestal High School a few months back there was a “Kick-a-Jew-day” that sprang up among some of the kids, spread by texting and facebook. It is a slightly more complicated story that this, but in essence several kids kicked their fellow students who were Jewish. Rather quickly I heard people jumping from a statement about ‘the awful thing these kids have done” to how “these are awful kids.” But to demonize these kids is not helpful. I am not saying there might be an explanation that would make the incident somehow acceptable. What I am saying is there might be circumstances we don’t yet know that would make the incident something other than a hate-crime perpetrated by the worst segment of our society. Demonizing the ‘other’ not helpful. Listening to people would be helpful.

We could call up any number of examples in which sides are taken, lines are drawn, and people stop listening. The pattern of polarization is so ingrained in our public process that it is hard to avoid it.

There was a big longitudinal study done recently that looked at census data and county level election results data from the past five decades. [The Big Sort, the clustering of like-minded America, Bill Bishop, 2008. And, again, my thanks to colleague rev. Roger Fritts for highlighting this book in his sermon as cited above.] The major finding of the study was that over the past 30 or 40 years Americans have been sorting themselves into homogenous geographies. In the 1950s, for example, people with college degrees were fairly evenly distributed across the United States. In recent years, college-educated people have been disproportionately concentrated major cities like Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other such places along the east and west coast. In these communities, people tend to be more interested in politics and less likely to attend church. They tend to listen to National Public Radio, read weekly news magazines, vote Democrat, and own cats.

People without college degrees tend to be found in places like Lubbock, Texas; Gilbert, Arizona; Lafayette, Louisiana; or Allentown, Pennsylvania. These communities tend to be less densely populated and thus have bigger lawns. People in these communities watch Fox for their news, they own guns, volunteer and participate in clubs and churches, vote Republican, visit relatives a lot, and own dogs.

In short, we are clustering not only based on educational level or working class vs. middle class. We have been, over the past few decades, sorting ourselves into geographic clusters of like-mindedness. One pertinent observation from the research is that like-minded groups tend to enforce conformity and grow more extreme through a self-reinforcing loop. Mixed company tends to moderate while like-minded company tends to polarize. As political liberals and conservatives keep themselves in enclaves, they grow more zealous and become more distrustful of each other. Churches, even our diversity-loving liberal Unitarian Universalist churches, do not escape this clustering of like-mindedness. Many is the time I have heard a person comment about how great it is to have found a church home and to be around like-minded people. And yet, mixed company tends to moderate while like-minded company tends to polarize.

So, what can we do about it? The simple answer is to meet people who disagree with you. My mother tells a compelling story about that. My mother is a Unitarian Universalist minister, and when I was 18 she moved to Syracuse to serve the May memorial Unitarian Universalist Society as their Minister of Religious Education. During her years in Syracuse she also volunteered at the Planned Parenthood Center, serving on its board and as its President. She says the response she got from members of the congregation was mixed. Some would ask:

“What’s in it for us? You are taking time away from focusing on us to work for Planned Parenthood. And, I don’t agree with everything they do there.” Others would say, “Thank you for representing us as a congregation with the hard work to do at Planned Parenthood.”

Reflecting on that she writes:

Sometimes I felt like I did represent May Memorial; sometimes I felt I represented Unitarian Universalism and the UUA; but most of the time I was answering a personal call to work for the rights of women to maintain control over their reproductive choices, and for girls and women to receive the medical care they needed for healthy sexuality, pregnancy, and overall health. I received many a threatening phone call, and the Director and Medical Director wore bullet proof vests to work each day. I stood facing the Lambs of Christ protesters who came to demonstrate in front of our building, and I wrote letters to the editor.

She then tells of a program she became involved in called Common Ground for Life and Choice. It was a conference she attended, a conference for those who stood for life and those who stood for choice to come together and share peaceful and constructive dialogue.

We spent the first part of the conference just talking to one another about our lives apart from this topic. Then we were given colored dots to put on our name tags: blue for choice and green for life. By that time, however we had begun to relate to one another in caring ways that made it difficult to hate someone who differed from us on this issue.

There were guidelines they had all agreed to such as ‘no inflammatory language’ and ‘no language that made the others in the group uncomfortable.

It was an amazing experience. From it I developed a very powerful relationship with a young woman who was Pro-Life. We went on a radio talk show to share our beliefs. I remember one caller was angry that we could even talk with one another much less understand and respect the other’s beliefs. We held a Sunday morning Adult discussion Forum at my church together and she was treated with respect and listened to with compassion. Her Pastor would not allow us to come to her Christian fundamentalist congregation to have the same dialogue. I always regretted that for I do believe it could have begun a bridge of understanding.

Following this conference one of the women who had stood outside of the Planned Parenthood Center said she had never thought that those of us inside the building were frightened of them. But I told her we were, in part because of the murders of Planned Parenthood personnel in Brookline, MA and in Florida, and because our Center had experienced a buteric acid attack. I know that in Syracuse, at least for a time, the volatile environment eased and the work that came out of the Conference and the dialogues between those of us who were Pro-choice and Pro-Life helped many who were open to listening with respect came to a deeper understanding of all the dimensions of this issue.

It is possible to have an effect; it is possible to engage with people – even with people who seem to be so very far from your perspective. It is possible to impact the public discourse around you.

So, what are we to do? We could start by treating each other more gently and hospitable. Let us practice among ourselves. We could extend that hospitality to every person we find in this space: from the person we don’t recognize and might be new on Sunday morning to the person wandering the halls on a weekday evening looking for their meeting room. Take this generous and hospitable spirit of civility out to your work places and schools, to the coffee shops and shopping centers, to the multitude of places where you might bump into a person with a different perspective to offer. And then, speak up and listen in turn.

In a world without end,
may it be so.