A Call for Civility

The last several months have been busy ones for me on the activist front. We held a successful march against Monsanto in Mystic, CT that was preceded by a teach-in and two sign making events. We paid a visit to a CT congressman hoping to sway his vote to a “NO” on Fast Track for the TPP and this morning I attended a rally in support of a transgender teenager who is currently being held in an adult prison, much to the consternation of a wide community calling for more appropriate arrangements. Add to this the daily check-in on Facebook to keep up with issues, actions and perspectives on so many other fronts.

All of the events mentioned above have given cause to question the place for civility in our dealings with those whose views we are trying to influence, including those whose positions and practices we find abhorrent. Many of us at the march against Monsanto believe that corporation to be as evil as they come and that our efforts to stop it must be tireless and fierce. Is it then acceptable to carry signs and sing out chants with the message “F— Monsanto”? What reaction can we reasonably expect from motorists or pedestrians who are passing by and actually paying attention to our messages? Will they be receptive to messages conveyed in such a manner? Will our other messages, both verbal and in print, be taken seriously or will our entire group be seen in a negative light?

Our experience of meeting with a CT congressman maintained a very positive tone. It was agreed that our approach would be one of open communication rather than attack. While we pressed our belief in the importance of our position and our unyielding belief that it is the right position for the congressman as well, we did so in tones of respect and found that he truly listened. This certainly doesn’t mean that he will come around to our way of thinking but as the meeting neared the end of our allotted time, everyone realized we hadn’t covered a good portion of our intended agenda. It was actually the congressman who suggested a follow up meeting in a month or so to continue the conversation. I absolutely believe that his willingness to meet with us again had as much to do with our delivery as it did with our message.

Today’s rally in support of the transgender teen who has been underserved (to say the least) by DCF and others, was well planned, well attended and energetic. We gathered in front of DCF headquarters with signs and a bull horn. Most of what people shared while using the microphone was supportive of the teen and critical of DCF. So far so good. Did it remain good and effective when some speakers referred to “the f—ers in this building or to the head of DCF as a “f—ing liar”? Chances are, if the head of the agency was indeed in the building, she was aware of our presence and what was being said. What are the chances that being referred to as a “f—ing liar” would do anything to make her listen to anything else we had to say?

And then there is Facebook. I had an exchange with an activist friend about a week ago (no names here!). In her post she referred to anyone who supports the political party to which she is opposed as an “ignorant, manipulated moron”. I felt compelled to send a private message in response. My position is that if there was any possible room for debate, discussion, sharing of perspectives or any chance to influence the thinking of someone in the group to whom she was referring, it was destroyed by the likes of that comment. Are we influenced by people who deride us for our positions? Are we willing to listen to people who dismiss us as hopeless? I believe it is more likely that we turn such people off as they turn us off when we use that approach. The sad part is that the only thing accomplished by such outbursts is the smug and naively self congratulatory feeling on the part of the attacker. Nothing else is accomplished – nothing! Indeed, the only result of this particular Facebook post was a long thread of reciprocal and vitriolic back and forth.

We talk about the ineptitude of Congress, where members of opposite parties can’t stop deriding one another long enough to actually talk and listen to each another. We are tired of Congress doing little else than playing the blame game. We roll our eyes when the rhetoric begins, knowing full well what is coming and losing all interest and patience before it gets too far. I believe we need to be better, both in terms of our legislative process and as individuals.

It’s important to tell you that I am very fond of expletives and my description of Monsanto and other corporations/policies/individuals is often uncivil at best, downright vulgar at worst. The difference is that I try to be careful about the settings in which I let loose my insults and swear-ridden rants. They don’t appear on the signs I carry, in face to face meetings with people whom I’m trying to influence or in Facebook posts that I know will be seen by people whose positions I’m trying to change. We need to decide if our mission is to influence or insult, communicate or shut communication down, make a difference or just make noise.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are times when our anger, frustration and insistence must be expressed in terms that are unmistakably sharp, clear and unapologetic, using whatever language and messaging is necessary to accomplish that goal and I’ve participated in my fair share of such circumstances. It is in our narrower, more personal interactions when we have the possibility of influencing one other person’s thinking that I hope everyone will take a little extra time to consider how our ideas will be delivered. Time and energy are limited. Let’s use them wisely.