Rediscovering Civility

Last month I wrote briefly about the fallacy of the upper hand. The responses I received from people navigating similar bouts of forced will remind me how not normal our lives remain. Over the past year and a half, many employees have learned to work remotely, and to some the routine of working from home is now its own form of normalcy. At the same time, we are increasingly returning to the workplace and trying to adjust to the structure of sharing a space with colleagues and strangers for a third of each day.

To assume everyone can walk back into the workplace and public spaces without some enhanced focus on conduct seems to me naïve. Human beings are certainly adaptable, but I worry that we might be presuming a level of adaptability that confuses the comfort zone of individuals with the smooth functioning of collective interests. You’ve no doubt heard about the outbreaks of passenger rage on commercial flights. They are not as isolated as we might want to believe.

Covid-19 has taken away a lot of daily practice from our interactions. It’s not just that it is easy to forget how different it is to interact in person than it is to communicate through electronic platforms. Talking into screens is not a fully rendered substitute for being together. We have developed habits in our physical solitude that have taught us to be effective in doing what is expected of us, but some of those habits may not make the most of opportunities to emerge with a broader purpose. We may find it easier to behave in certain ways when we are alone than when we are together, and bridging those geographies may not be as simple as flexible switching between environments in what many now label as hybrid work.

There is more to the next generation workplace than where we do what we do. There is a mindset I think we need to share—a set of shared values—that seems to me more traditional than circumstantial. If we want to adapt to new paradigms for interacting, perhaps the rules governing those interactions are agnostic to place. It seems critical with the perpetual noise around us that as we adjust to the new back-to-work standards we insist on a standard of decency in our endeavors.

In recommitting to an extraordinary standard of civility, here are four simple pillars I would expect of myself and others.

Tell the Truth

When I say tell the truth, I mean all the time. It’s easy to tell the truth when it is what others want to hear and it avoids controversy. It is much harder to tell the truth when we have made a mistake, when data is being manipulated by someone in authority, or when the cost of that truth is one’s own popularity. The problem with honesty is that it can’t be a tool of convenience. We must tell the truth not because there is penalty if we don’t, but because we cannot universally insist on it from others if we don’t stand by the promise that it is inarguable. Understand what is empirical and fully embrace integrity. Silence when the truth is known is not a noble dodge, it is another form of mistruth.

Your Name Belongs to You

Unless one’s life is at risk for civil rights abuses, most of what people author anonymously is cowardly. We can argue the difference between old media and new media is the presence of an editor creating an artificial funnel on access to audience, but one of those old school norms was the expectation in authorship of identity. We should write with a by-line, with our name associated with our thoughts, and with our style of verbal and written communication enhanced by our ownership of that expression. You have only one good name. Protect it through accuracy, clarity, absence of pointless invective, and even if eloquence is beyond reach, at least frame the deliberate use of language in a context that is purposeful.

Manners Matter

We can stand on our authority, or we can strive to get people on our side. It has never been clearer to me that style is content, that the outcome we are trying to achieve is inextricably linked to the form of our argument. Approach those around you with respect and there is a much higher chance they might be interested in the thought behind the point you are making rather than just the interpretation of their role in the outcome. Avoid the opportunity to build consensus at your own peril, but even when you must deliver the top-down tiebreaker, do it with finesse, restricting the hammer to the impossible sell. The Golden Rule survives the centuries because some ideals do make sense even when we fail ceaselessly to take them seriously. Hear the words you are saying. Would they get you encouraged, inspired, and onboard?

Think Long

Survivors know that careers can last or not. The yes you got today—the yes that was so important you worked tirelessly for months to hear—is as fleeting as any other decision in the moment. Short-term action without a long-term framework is a high-risk gamble. Telling a half-truth might get you to the end of the week. Cleverly masking your name from an unpopular report might get you through the review cycle. Effectively bullying a coworker might swing a lost debate to your advantage. All of those will cost you. Steve Jobs used to talk about brand deposits and brand withdrawals. You need both in balance to build a lasting brand—to establish and reinforce a credible promise. You can’t make deposits and withdrawals at random and go “up and to the right” repeatedly without a plan. The winning strategy when others are winging it is to think long.

Welcome to the new world. Sounds a lot like the old world, only with less commuting. Count me in.

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Photo: Pixabay

12 Reasons Why We Vilify

FlagFightA recent debate on my Facebook page raised the issue of whether there is a double standard among Progressives as to where and when indictment of political opponents is warranted. Taking this a step further, the discussion evolved into the appropriateness of vilification of someone’s opponent in an argument, and whether that vilification was one-sided with regard to political party leanings.

I have my opinions on this, but I want to set them aside for a moment and simply delve into the issue of vilification as the outcome of disagreement, and how we devolve to that extreme.

As a noble sidebar, let’s take a quick run down a philosophy bypass in summarizing the works of Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish philosopher largely focused on making sense of his devout Christian faith in an increasingly modern and existential world. Kierkegaard suggested we live our lives in three realms: the aesthetic, where we act simply in our own interest and do whatever we enjoy; the ethical, where we act according to agreed laws to avoid punishment; and the religious, where we do what is right in an absolute sense because we see no other acceptable alternative. From the religious realm, comprehensively embracing the tale of Abraham’s test by God to sacrifice his own child, Kierkegaard describes faith ultimately as an absurdist paradox. You believe or you don’t. You don’t owe anyone an explanation because you decide in your heart what God believes is right.

You don’t have to buy Kierkegaard’s framework to apply it. You simply have to understand that our values are substantially derived from the religious realm as he describes it, regardless if we consider ourselves traditionally religious. They are belief sets we acquire however we acquire them, and we don’t feel we have to justify them to others. Returning to the realm of the politicalthe ethical set of laws we choose to accept in our Constitutionally defined secular societymy sense is that our act of vilification emerges with the full erosion of our shared values. If we don’t have enough places we agree on critical laws reflecting deeply held values, then the opposition to our views becomes moral and absolute vs. legal and relative.

Consider some examples: Whether taxes should be increased 2% or 4% is essentially an intellectual argument where we are unlikely to vilify someone who disagrees with us. Whether health care is a human right or an imposition of authority is less intellectual, so we become emotional. Whether a woman’s right to choose is absolute or controllable takes us to fundamental beliefs, where the opposition becomes the enemy. The more we disagree at the fundamental level, the less we have in common and the more we reject the opposing argument as an assault on our basic living principles.

Here’s the rub: Without a set of some shared values embodied in our ethical laws, we can’t be much of a unified, strong nation. This is a danger of our profound experiment in democracy, and at the moment I believe we are fully putting it to the test. If you extrapolate the tenor of our current discourse to the full extreme, where all we can do is vilify one another because we cannot find a set of shared values, we might indeed be one national crisis away from ending our time in the sunno matter how many nukes we have in our inventory, or how many gold bars we have in our repository. Call it the challenge of WWIII, or perhaps an economic meltdown without a reachable escape hatch. If we can’t find the shared values that lead us to an agreed solution with a clock ticking, everything we have accomplished together to date becomes a footnote.

How scary is it, and how much do we cross into each other’s most sacred space? Consider this starter list of how little we value in each other’s convictions:

  1. We don’t agree on a woman’s right to choose.
  2. We don’t agree on the universality of health care.
  3. We don’t agree on how to deploy military forces in the Middle East or otherwise around the world.
  4. We don’t agree on the basics of immigration reform, or for that matter, who can or can’t enter the United States, short or long-term.
  5. We don’t agree on gun control, with our interpretations of the Second Amendment light years apart.
  6. We don’t agree on how to address poverty and homelessness in our own nation, let alone abroad.
  7. We don’t agree on how to address controlled substances, or whether the war on drugs is worth continuing in anything resembling its current form.
  8. We don’t agree on where to set minimum wage, or if a minimum standard of living should be possible if minimum wage is what one earns working full-time.
  9. We don’t agree on who has the right to be married, even though the Supreme Court has ruled on it.
  10. We don’t agree on climate change, whether it is a scientifically proven global concern, and if it is, how much a priority it should be for U.S. business policy and financial attention.
  11. We don’t agree on what constitutes a basic education, or what we can hope to expect in the form of presumed literacy and interpretation skills by the time a person reaches adulthood and takes on the responsibilities of independent living.
  12. We don’t agree on an approach to reasonable tax reform or the proper tax structure for the rich, the middle class, or the poor.

That is an awful lot that drives us apart. All of those involve valuescurrently reflected in lawsthat we do not seem to share or want to share.

So my ultimate two questions are simple: What shared values do we maintain as a vast majority? And if we can’t find enough of them, where do we go from here?

Perhaps we still maintain shared values around the hope that our children will thrive, our government will remain in humble service to the people who select its leadership, that charitable activity will be lauded, and that criminal activity will be addressed with justice. Yet even as I form those thoughts, I am inevitably driven to the specifics of definition and implementation, and find us back at war among our various convictions about how we bring such affirmative notions into everyday reality.

I guess in the end there really aren’t 12 reasons we vilify. There’s just one: We vilify when we fear the imposition of someone else’s will on our own that crosses the bounds of our most cherished values. Daunting challenge to overcome, don’t you think? And as we let it get out of hand and don’t find a way to bridge the gap, the likelihood that we can find any unifying shared values at all diminishes in our anger and ultimate silence. That’s when we lose everything, and damn if we don’t seem to be hell-bent on flushing away almost 300 years of what we thought was shared progress.

Sometime when I listen to the anonymous, unfiltered invective swelling all around me, I wonder if we ever truly shared it at all.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.