Put some civility back in politics 

Published 6:50 pm Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Can and should freedom of expression and civility co-exist?

In case you missed it in last week’s edition, Smithfield High School student Maggie Mandara won an essay contest by the Virginia School Boards Association on that important question. While we’re thrilled with a local student’s winning a statewide writing contest, we’re saddened by Maggie’s conclusion that two values we cherish — civility and the right of expression — are in hopeless conflict in America.

Adults would be wise to consider the impact of their words and actions on young people like Maggie, who, before they’re even old enough to vote, become jaded about the constitutional republic they’re about to inherit.

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In her winning essay, Maggie correctly points to a lack of empathy as the culprit in the toxic discourse of modern politics. One should be able to hold a firm belief on a topic and not consider someone with an opposing view the evil enemy. Unfortunately, the ability to consider viewpoints other than our own without getting angry is a lost art.

We blame social media, where it’s too easy to spew hatred without accountability to our fellow man. Face-to-face conversations are more likely to explore, and find, common ground.

We read recently about a national movement called Braver Angels, which was founded after the 2016 presidential election as a way to help with political depolarization. The group tries to foster civil discussions among those with differing viewpoints about faith and politics.

The organization’s community workshops include a stereotypes exercise, where “red” and “blue” groups meet in separate rooms to come up with a list of what they believe are the most common false stereotypes about their side, why the stereotypes are inaccurate, what the truth is instead and what kernels of truth are in each stereotype. The groups then get together to discuss their findings.

They also participate in a fishbowl listening exercise, with one group in an inner circle discussing why they think their side is good for the country and what reservations they have about their own political party. The two groups then switch spots.

The object is not to change anyone’s minds, but to listen and be heard in a civil manner.

We hope the movement gains some traction nationally. It might just restore the faith of young people like Maggie.