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ASK | We need to reclaim discourse and courtesy in our society

How should I respond when I’m being drawn into a situation or conversation that may become uncivilized?

As a kid, I was taught to say “please” and “thank you,” to hold doors open for others, eat whatever was placed before me, and always address others formally: “Mr., Mrs., Miss, Dr.,” etc. While in seminary, every other year a manners teacher spent a day with us discussing how a gentleman behaves in different social situations, from correspondence to formal dinners (absolutely no food is finger-lickin’ good, she told us). I was raised and taught that courtesy meant “having manners fit for a royal court.” After all, we believe that we are part of God’s Kingdom, so shouldn’t we treat one another and behave in a manner that reflects this?

We should honor others’ dignity, even those with whom we disagree. My fear is that we are not only losing the virtue of courtesy, but we are losing the basic sense of civility that recognizes our need for interdependence on one another to sustain our society. There will always be a tension between the right of the individual and the obligation that each individual has to the larger community, but right now, the exaltation of individual rights above all else is tearing us apart. So what can we do?

The art of discussion

The word “discussion” comes from the Latin discutere which means “to investigate.” We should not fear various points of view. Investigating ideas and having open and honest conversations about difficult topics is important. But as the adage goes, “God gave you two ears and only one mouth for a reason … listen twice as often as you speak.”

One of the difficulties today is that many of our online “discussions” are anything but. It is dangerous to try to interpret tone or context with digital communications. Conversely, sometimes an individual might send a message that is far more aggressive than something they would say in person. The lack of physical presence can inhibit healthy communication.

True ideas withstand critique and examination, which is why the Church is never afraid to pursue honest discussion. When discussing important matters, I can be a person of conviction without being a jerk. But we have begun to misunderstand and misuse some important terms that we ought to clarify.

Some people say that behaving in an uncivilized manner is a result of passion. But to be passionate means that I am willing to suffer for a good greater than myself, not that I “lose my temper” at the drop of a hat.

But Father, didn’t Jesus overturn the money changers’ tables in the temple out of anger? Doesn’t that excuse me losing my temper occasionally? Yes, He did … no, it doesn’t. Righteous anger seeks to protect the good, the true and the beautiful, while at the same time desires reconciliation with those whose ideas I am opposed to. Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, but also gave His life for them in the end. So, the next time you lose your temper, ask yourself if you are willing to die for the person in front of you.

Some people confuse anger with contempt, which is a vice. Contempt devalues a person based on his or her beliefs and seeks destruction, not reconciliation. Our society has become entrenched and contemptuous, and we need to reclaim discourse and courtesy in our society to fix it.

So the next time that you feel yourself being drawn into a situation or conversation that your fear may become uncivilized, ask the Holy Spirit to inspire you with true wisdom, understanding and counsel. And always remember the Beatitudes given to us by Jesus, particularly: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God … Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” These beatitudes do not contradict one another, but complement and rely on one another in order for God’s kingdom to be present in our hearts and our society.

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