How the U.S. Can Become More Civil

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The Tennessean

Thanksgiving does not have to be a time to dread feeling heartburn over what controversial things some guests might say.

It could become a time to strengthen relationships and come to a better understanding, but only if we are intentional about doing just that.

A new nonpartisan group, Better Angels, provides Americans a model for embracing active civil discourse.

Since the 2016 presidential election, Better Angels has traveled the country to help people of diametrically opposed political viewpoints come together in conversation.

The idea is radical because so many people have normalized tuning each other out and have perpetuated hyperbolic claims that Americans are living in the most divided times ever.

Read More: Liberals and conservatives talked out their differences: here is what they decided

Some do not want to hear the other side, others do not know how to enter such a discussion, and still others fear that this type of encounter would only end up making them feel worse.

Despite the bluster of certain politicians and pundits, however, Better Angels discovered that Americans, especially at a local level, really wanted to make things better.

The group held two all-day conversations in the Nashville area in 2017, bringing together people who voted for President Donald Trump and people who voted against him.

Amazingly, the participants have ended the day as friends.

“We want to feel valued, we want to feel like we’re contributing, we do want to make our communities better.”

Lynn Heady, a participant in the Nov. 18 Better Angels civility discussion in the Nashville area

Lynn Heady, a 17-year Nashville resident and board chair of Congregation Micah, craved a healthy, productive, face-to-face discussion, which is why she agreed to participate in the most recent Better Angels conversation last Saturday in Brentwood.

“I think Saturday, coming together with an equal amount of individuals on either side, was really what my soul needed in coming to grips with what I’m living through now,” Heady said.

“What was reassuring was there really wasn’t a lot of distance in what we want,” she said. “We want to feel valued, we want to feel like we’re contributing, we do want to make our communities better.

“When I walked out of there, there was a sense of hope,” she added.

The Better Angels curriculum is based on the work of University of Minnesota marriage and family professor William Doherty, said Ciaran O’Connor, the group’s director of public engagement.

“Instead of getting people together to debate the issues, which a lot of times can leave people more polarized than they were coming in, and instead of changing each other’s minds, we put in the structure to listen and be heard,” O’Connor said. “To understand the other side beyond stereotypes.”

He said the hope is for participants to continue these relationships and build upon what they learned with others.

It would be a mistake to consider modeling civil behavior as passive, weak or surrendering one’s ground.

Practicing civility and practicing civil discourse require disciplined commitment to citizenship, to embracing American values of pluralism, to speaking boldly but kindly, and, most important, to listening actively.

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to answer the question, “How can the United States become more civil?”

Read More: Is civility in America possible anymore?

So many eagerly responded. Please continue reading to consume and reflect upon their responses.

Happy Thanksgiving!

David Plazas is the director of opinion and engagement for the USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee and opinion and engagement editor for The Tennessean. Call him at 615-259-8063, email him at or tweet to him at @davidplazas.

Challenge your own views

If you are horrified by the lack of civility on display in our great nation right now, I’ve got a suggestion for you: Look in the mirror and reflect on your own practice.

Do you share memes without fact-checking? Do you throw ad hominem attacks on members of the other political party? Do you read articles that only support your point of view?

“How can I possibly be sure what I believe if I don’t challenge my own views?”

Amanda Smithfield

Civility starts when you challenge yourself to see a different point of view. As a liberal, I’ve started reading conservative publications such as The National Review and The Wall Street Journal on a daily basis. How can I possibly be sure what I believe if I don’t challenge my own views?

Reading multiple viewpoints has allowed me to see perspectives I’ve never considered before. America will become more civil when its citizens seriously consider different perspectives.

Amanda Smithfield, Nashville 37221

The Beatitudes and civility

My preferred template for civility is best informed in the teachings of Jesus Christ known as the “Beatitudes” (Matthew 5:1-12, KJV).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This beatitude reflects humility versus arrogance.
Given the reality of our volatile electoral cycles, the beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn” can serve as consolation to those who have suffered defeat that brighter days are on the horizon.

“Blessed are the meek” recognizes the long-term benefits, within the political arena, of treating one’s adversaries in a spirit of deference versus condescension.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Mercy, with its reciprocity dividend, is a key component of civility.

“Blessed are the pure in heart” relates to the recognition of the inherent worthiness of all and absence of malice toward any.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” speaks to those who promote reconciliation between opposing combative factions.

Robert Judkins, Hendersonville 37075

Focus on our common ground

In his 1952 presidential election concession speech Adlai Stevenson said, “That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties.”

This truth is fundamental to American politics and reminds us the ability to civilly exchange ideas is key to democracy.

Our country is more politically divided than it’s been in generations, as evidenced by hyperpartisanship in Congress and statehouses across the country.

While citizens and their representatives do not need to agree on every issue to engage with one another, we need to focus on our common ground. Shared traditions, from religion to sports, can build personal relationships across political divides, leave enmity behind and make dialogue possible.

Thanksgiving is here, and we are reminded that politics may divide even families and friends, but let it not stop us from joining together at the table to show that divisiveness is not the new normal.

Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director, National Institute for Civil Discourse, Tucson, AZ 85719

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