Keeping Civil in an Angry World

In case you’re wondering…the manuscript for Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (available this fall from SkyLight Paths) was due June 29. Between that, my full-time job, and a few dialogue-related events, I never succeeded in finding a moment to blog. My apologies! The schedule is now returning to something like normal, thanks be to God. So, to get back on track…


It was only one word in an entire column. It wasn’t even a particularly important word. Yet it captured, in a nutshell, why I see dialogue as a matter of the heart.

Not too long ago, The Times Union ran an engaging profile of Rev. James Martin—a Jesuit priest, writer, and thinker—by one of its bloggers, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. Right in the middle of the piece, Szpylczyn mentioned Martin’s pleasant and easygoing personality.

“With an ever-present smile, he is clever, yet perpetually charitable,” Szpylczyn wrote. “This alone is remarkable in a media culture where verbal swords are wielded in the name of some kind of justice or truth. Not for this priest. He is dedicated to keeping the conversation frank, but civil, at all times.”

There it was. Keeping. Keeping the conversation civil. It implied an attempt to restrain something powerful and potentially havoc-wreaking, as in “keep your temper,” “keep your head about you,” or “keep the children from running amok.”

Why should we have to keep conversation civil?

Because civility is not our instinct. Our instinct, rather, is toward defensiveness, anger, and debate. When people take issue with us, we often turn up the volume, which makes us appear more authoritative or more intimidating. To paraphrase Szpylczyn, we wield verbal swords.

Why do we lead with this reaction? Perhaps we’ve learned it over millennia of conflict with different people, tribes, and nations. Quite likely, it reflects our nature as a species, as exemplified in the fight-or-flight response.

This is where spirituality can help. Many of the world’s faith traditions focus on inner transformation: a fundamental turning away from self-centered concerns and toward an ultimate concern—which many people, me included, identify as God. As we turn toward God with our whole being, God transforms our whole being from the inside out. Transforms it into what? Faith traditions are well aligned on that too: toward compassion, toward wisdom, toward peacemaking.

Toward others.

When we practice this type of spirituality long enough, intently enough, our first reaction begins to change. We find ourselves instinctively reacting, not with hostility and defensiveness, but with curiosity, open-mindedness, compassion. Reflecting the God who embraces all, we start to embrace all—not just as an external practice, but as an impulse of the heart.

As a result, we no longer have to keep the conversation civil—because we already are civil. It becomes our nature.

And how much change can that make in the other? As it is written, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If enough of us practice this spirituality, we can turn away wrath more broadly, on a larger scale. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the tone of our cultural and national conversations.

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  1. Cristi
    Posted July 7, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Another important word in the priest’s description is “charitable”. I find on the days I can manage to keep a charitable attitude toward others, I can be much more civil. I try to remember the quote ” Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” and when that fails, after an uncivil encounter I get out my mantra of “Not married to them, not related to them, don’t owe them any money.”

    • Posted July 7, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Well said, Cristi. I love the “fighting a hard battle” quote, because it’s absolutely true. It’s also so difficult to know which battles any given person is fighting at any given time, and how they might be affecting her response in dialogue. Another reason why a charitable approach is the most productive.

  2. Posted July 7, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    A keep in military terms is a castle of refuge. There is a sense of restraint and not allo2int yourelf to be drawn into dangerous territory in keeping your tongue.

    • Posted July 7, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Nice piece of etymology there, my friend. I agree: sometimes there’s simply no other course than to “keep” in the sense you cite. One of my concerns about dialogue, though, is that a lot of us err on the side of overcaution–so we clam up the minute anything controversial comes up, rather than try to engage the discussion. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just that we may miss an opportunity for exploring issues with other people–and maybe, in the process, bonding with them. Perhaps the bottom line is to pay attention and discern when the opportunity is there vs. when keeping one’s tongue is the better part of wisdom.

  3. Posted July 7, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Your blog was a nice surprise to uncover, thanks to a Google alert that brought it to my attention. I am grateful for inclusion here!

    In regard to the topic, I am someone who feels called to social media ministry – and therefore lots of frank but charitable conversation. It is a challenge – and not one that I myself can always live up to. And as you said above, sometimes keeping one’s tongue is the better part of wisdom, that’s the hard part.

    • Posted July 9, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

      Nice to make your acquaintance, Fran! And thank you for the good article. I’m glad you didn’t mind me poaching a word from it to make a point.

      Social media might be one of the most difficult spaces in which to respond civilly and dialogically, given how many Facebookers, Tweeters, et al. want to respond in exactly the opposite way. And yet social media has such great potential for connection and communication. It’s a fun place to talk about the Spirit, eh?

  4. Karen Lea Siegel
    Posted July 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    What lovely thoughts! I confess – when I look at the current rhetoric going around the church and the country, it saddens me. I honestly don’t know how to stay civil and open-minded when the person in front of me is spewing hateful vitriol and saying things that I believe are simply not true. I hit a point where I just need to walk away and not even bother to engage, because it’s clear that the person is too invested in his or her own small ugly world to be willing to be open to a conversation rather than a shouting match.

    • Posted July 11, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      Nice to hear from you, Karen! I don’t know how to handle the vitriol-spewing situations, either: right at the moment when it’s happening, there’s so much hostility involved that getting through to the vitriolic speaker–even with a “soft answer that turns away wrath”–is highly unlikely. That’s one reason I tend to focus on people who are at least a little bit open to dialogue or something like it.

  5. Posted August 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Impressive! Thanks for sharing this.

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