During this National Week of Conversation, a renewed debate has erupted among public figures and commentators regarding the merits of ‘civility.’ Pearce Godwin—Executive Director of the new National Conversation Project and CEO of Listen First Project—offers the following response:
The current debate on the merits of ‘civility’—erupting between and within ideological camps—epitomizes the hyper-polarization and tribalism that has gripped American society. We frequently find ourselves talking past those with whom we disagree, dismissing them as enemies with bad intentions, threats to be destroyed, rather than fellow Americans—human beings—worth understanding. We often make very little effort to understand people outside our many increasingly narrow camps.
Part of the challenge is that many of the words we use mean very different things to different people. ‘Civility’ is no different. There is the formal definition of the term (politeness and courtesy) and then more toxic connotations. Calls for ‘civility’ are understandably threatening to some who’ve been disproportionately silenced over time, and still today. The abstract concept of ‘civility,’ however understood, is a distraction from what we believe America needs right now—fresh conversations including all voices, not about terms or behavior but with each other, sharing our diverse perspectives, experiences, hopes, and fears.
The 100+ organizations behind National Conversation Project are interested in encouraging a shift in attitude and behavior—beginning with ourselves—that can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division in this country. We humbly suggest that an effort to listen first to understand each other, especially those with whom we disagree, would move us toward a stronger and more equitable future for all—one built on relationships created by conversation. Whether in personal relationships (in which being heard and understood is part of being loved) or on the front lines of activism (where conversations can galvanize support and increase understanding of resistance), we believe listening first to understand has the power to make all of us stronger.
As experts see America “at the beginning of a soft civil war” and say the solution is “more positive social connections,” we are committed to encouraging conversations that move ‘us vs. them’ toward ‘me & you.’ Americans of all stripes are welcome and necessary. This unprecedented collaborative effort to bridge divides won’t work if only a portion of Americans join the conversation. We recognize that for much of America’s history, many have been excluded from the conversation. That must change now.
Leaders from both sides of the aisle similarly recognize the problem and solution. President George W. Bush has decried, “discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” observing that “argument turns too easily to animosity; disagreement escalates into dehumanization.” In opening his Foundation Summit, President Barack Obama said, “Why don't we practice what we preach and listen first.”
75% of Americans say they're willing to set a good example by practicing conversations across divides, and 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign promoting such conversations. That campaign is National Conversation Project.
Revitalizing America and finally achieving its promise as “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” will require all of us, together. Let’s get started.
Executive Director, National Conversation Project
CEO, Listen First Project
What is National Conversation Project?
National Conversation Project seeks to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. We promote monthly conversation opportunities as well as National Weeks of Conversation inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together. NCP aggregates, aligns, and amplifies the efforts of more than 100 hosting partners to mainstream conversations in which we #ListenFirst to understand. www.nationalconversationproject.org #ListenFirst
1 Bloomberg, What Democratic Rage Would Look Like
2 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
3 MarketWatch, George W. Bush decries ‘forces pulling us apart’
4 Obama Foundation, Summit Opening Session Video
5 Weber Shandwick, Civility in America VII: The State of Civility