All Voices Day
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 4, 2012
They say the two things you can’t discuss with company if you want things to remain civil are politics and religion. Many of you have described situations to me of how this little proverb holds true for you and your family at holiday times. Several of you here have talked about being the only Unitarian Universalist among a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Southern Baptists, or fundamentalist Christians. Others have described being the only politically liberal member of the family. It can be hard to be the only voice, alone in the room, speaking what is almost a different language. It is often easier to simply remain silent.
In my family we have this same situation in reverse. My brother is the odd one out. My sisters and I are all liberals in terms of both politics and religion. My brother has become a very conservative in his politics and his religion. Our mother has a habit of sending e-mail jokes and cartoons to us kids, and in October and November every other year these jokes and cartoons take a very political edge to them.
Two years back at the 2010 election cycle, my brother responded to the political e-mails with his own conservative perspective, which launched that painful version of conversation that one might expect given the topic and the venue. Have any of you had less than productive e-mail exchanges over an emotionally charged topic? Have you had some of this sort of conversation at the Thanksgiving table?
The level of political discourse in the country in general is not a healthy model for us in our day-to-day interactions with friends and family. Newspapers and magazines have been featuring articles lately about the decline of political civility. Politics is becoming less and less about logic and rational thought and more about emotional appeals and sound bytes.
Civil political dialogue is something we are not seeing in this country right now. We are seeing bald rhetoric and half (or should I say at best, half) truths. Winston Churchill famously said many years back, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Is it not amazing how the digital communication age has allowed this quote to become only more and more accurate over the years? In her book, Saving Civility, author Sara Hacala says:
There is a danger in swallowing whole the inflammatory statements of demagogues who demonize the other side and promulgate a single truth. It is imperative for us to recognize red-hot rhetoric for what it is – language intended to play upon and incite the emotion of a crowd resulting in a mob mentality no longer capable of thinking clearly. (Saving Civility, p 74)
I remember speaking with a first-time candidate for a local election recently. This person was dismayed at how at how uncivil the political discourse had become. The candidate bemoaned the way everything was reduced to clichés without content when they thought there would be more actual debate of issues.
All this election season I have been thinking about this and about the slide from political information to propaganda that has been dividing us as a nation. I’ve been thinking about my brother and his very different political perspective. So last week, in an attempt not so much to open a dialogue or debate as to check in, I sent a note to my brother asking him why he liked the candidate he was supporting.
The reply I got back was rather defensive, but he did respond. He answered saying he would normally ignore an attempt from a family member drawing him into politics but, since I asked nicely and I seemed sincere, he would respond. He added a few caveats like “please don’t try to tell my how I’m wrong,” and “I could go on but I really don’t want to get into a debate or even a simple discussion, I’m pretty much sick and tired of presidential politics and propaganda.” But I had asked nicely; and so he shared a little of his actual perspective.
It is remarkable how much can be accomplished with kindness. Sara Hacala, again in her book Saving Civility, wrote:
I have come to learn that it is possible to say almost anything, however disagreeable, if presented in a tone that is devoid of anger, belligerence, sarcasm, criticism, superiority, judgment, impatience, or ugliness. (Saving Civility p 61)
That’s quite a list, isn’t it! But listen to it again and see how they all tie together. She is saying we should strive to strike a tone with our language that is devoid of “anger, belligerence, sarcasm, criticism, superiority, judgment, impatience, or ugliness.” This is certainly not simple, but neither it is untenable.
I think we are lulled into forgetting this reality. I think the crassness of our common political discourse has blinded us to other ways of communicating about politics. And it becomes remarkable how much can be accomplished with kindness. Here’s what I think I accomplished in sending that note to my brother: I did not ‘win’ my brother over to my way of thinking. Of course, that had not been my goal anyway. My goal was to get him to tell me something real about his politics. I don’t think I really accomplished that goal, for that would have involved a discussion, which he was not open for. But what I did accomplish was an opening. I ‘listened’ him into speaking at least a little.
What would it be like for you if one of those friends or family members with whom you disagree were to actually listen to your perspective? Not that they, who have disagreed all long, would suddenly agree – only that they would hear you out. Now, can you imagine offering that? Do you think you could draw out someone you disagree with?
I’m not suggesting this necessarily as something to do with every person you meet. Rather I think this is a way to approach important relationships in your life that you find strained each election season. It is a way to make room for another person’s voice. It is a way to educate yourself on the issues that matter to you. Walter Cronkite said, “In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.” I take it as a tenet of liberalism to seek both sides of a story even while leaning a little left of the story.
In today’s partisan and ideological climate, the extremes are getting the loudest voices. The general public is fed the extreme voices as if they are the only voices in the conversation. Other perspectives are drown out or intentionally misconstrued. It was author Robert McCloskey who said, “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” The way people hear and critique political perspectives with which they disagree seems at times to slip into willful misunderstanding. It is like everyone has given up on actually listening to other people.
And while I want to believe this is mostly happening among conservatives I feel compelled by logic to wonder at what I hear from the liberals as well. From what I have been hearing, the conservative voices in our country today are shaping into a monolithic unity that disallows moderate or in any way nuanced conservative voices. I long for a moderate conservative voice I can disagree with and yet respect.
It is not news to point out that as a liberal religious movement we Unitarian Universalists attract a majority of people who are also liberal in their politics. I know we used to have politically conservative voices in Unitarian Universalism and yet I don’t hear from you much these days. I can’t help thinking it is not all the fault of other conservatives and their neo-conservative corporatocracy narrative. I suspect the politically liberal majority within our faith movement is also pushing for a liberal extreme. I wonder how many of you feel a sense of affinity with my brother when he says he is just tired of trying to talk about it and tired of not being heard.
I truly think the problem is not that we are lacking the variety of perspective, what we lack is the possibility for civil political conversation. In Sara Hacala’s book that I have quoted from a few times already, she offers basic tips on how to regain civility, something lacking in our political discourse these days. The book has sections on “Respecting the boundaries of others,” “Discerning the right meaning,” “Resisting rhetoric,” and “Choose your heroes wisely.” The book does not advocate for every voice to have equal sway, only equal hearing. Hacala also calls for “Striving for truth” and “Disagree agreeably.” All this is very much in line with Nonviolent Communication or Compassionate Communication.
Her book offers a very personal application to this societal problem. Her thesis is that each person’s individual stance for or against civility in the political realm has an impact. In the introduction she offers this gem from a book by social scientists Christakis and Fowler: “Our world is governed by the Three Degrees of Influence Rule: we influence and are influenced by people up to three degrees removed from us, most of whom we do not even know.” (from Connected by Christakis and Fowler) Acts of generosity travel contagiously, as do acts of stinginess, according to experiments in their report. This does work. Engaging with the people who you see on the other side of the issue actually makes a difference. Listen to their perspective. Build trust and an openness to hearing each other by hearing the other yourself. When the situation allows you to, engage with both the facts and the emotional aspects of an issue.
I could almost take a paragraph from my sermon last month on respecting different religious perspectives for it is the same principle. It is a principle at the heart of our way of faith as Unitarian Universalists. That is why this sermon is not a political rant but a faithful appeal. Our faith calls us to be open to others and to support them as we would be supported in the free and responsible search for truth.
Yesterday I posted on facebook a thoughtful blog I’d found about the political debate around abortion. It was a nuanced piece going in depth with the implications of some of the recent political positions on the issue. One person responded to the post after reading it by saying: “Interesting application of a dash of common sense, a hint of empathy, and a few minutes’ actual thought on the matter. Weird how politics is devoid of all three.”
I suppose at the end of the day that is what I’m asking for from myself, from you, and from everyone in the country: a dash of common sense, a hint of empathy, and a few minutes’ actual thought on the matter. Your voice has an impact. Your voice is needed in the political discourse. Our faith calls us to be engaged and to help others to be engaged as well.
Shouting won’t get us there. Half-truths and sound-bytes will not get us there. Media spin will not get us there. Try listening. Try engaging. Try civility. That is what our faith demands of us. That is what our democratic republic demands of us. Our goal is not a unified voice, but a democracy of all voices. Our goal is not just to let my voice or your voice join the chorus, but to lift up all voices.
In a world without end,
May it be so.