Heard the maxim ‘you can disagree without being disagreeable‘? RBG is noted for stating something to that effect, as is Obama, and perhaps several other cool-headed thinkers. For whatever reason, the saying has been rolling around in my head all week. If I place it side-by-side with my mother’s advice, ‘if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all,’ there appears to be a gap. How does one learn to debate hard ideas if one remains silent? Or take inconsistent data and view it from multiple angles? How do we disagree and still communicate? It is far larger than remaining quiet, isn’t it?
I often wonder back to a time before I was old enough to understand the affairs of state and country, before cable news liars and Facebook misinformation dominated truth, even before I understood how civilians are used as targets by despots and their greed. When I flip through the history books, there really isn’t one starting point. WWII embroiled most of the planet in the killing of innocence. Where might you point a finger in those conflicts? Culpability runs through every nations’s action. Yet, at least for much of the European battles, one can feel justified and possible even pride in the Allied response. But skip ahead to Nixon’s Watergate transgressions, all pardoned by Ford, then Reagan’s illegal sale of arms to Iran (these were headed straight into the hands of the Contra rebels), all those sins were pardoned by President Bush, then came the Trump pardons for the likes of Bannon and his cohorts, all in preparation for Trump’s side-stepping of his own laundry list of crimes against our Democracy, perhaps soon to be swept away by those in power eager to do his bidding? With a history like ours, where does the ability to uncover truth, face liability, and set in motion a more transparent governing begin? Perhaps, exactly where it needs to be: in real debate, without the disagreeable nastiness.
Obama is quoted as saying, “Civility also requires relearning how to disagree without being disagreeable.” As a person standing in the midst of teenagers most days, I do my best to model this behavior despite what one might see beyond our school walls, for if I am not here to promote civility, then am I doing the core of my job? In English class our disagreements might be linked to a novel, or a character, and even there I feel as if I am trying to point out the complexity available if we allow for it. As students might jump to conclusions about Tansley or Mr. Ramsay in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I say, Wait, wait, isn’t there more to them than that one side you are seeing? What of their inner work? What of their own struggle? How might understanding that inform your view of them? As we dive deep into these characters, we also consider our own complexities and shortcomings, our varied pasts and colorful desires, the opposition twisting and pulling our own hearts and minds through the day to day. Might not an educated populous be a more agreeable one? Perhaps even more informed and empathic one? Possibly.
As for my mother, she relinquished silencing us, and embraced all our diverse paths and viewpoints. She was a marvel to that end actually. Perhaps it wasn’t while I was still a nutty teen, but it certainly was true as her bairns grew into disparate young adults. She was an avid talker who eventually took to listening once she realized it an avenue to true communion between people. Listening isn’t easy when faced with the fancy coming toward us via social media, but it is a necessary starting point if we are to bridge together the divides that are leaving most in screaming matches about our planet, our bodies, our governing, and even our health: the biggest stuff we need to sort out.
There are days when I miss a whole generation of folks who not only knew how to listen, but how to read, and think and ask questions, and rethink and debate. In my classroom I strive to do some of that, suggesting alternative viewpoints while listening to theirs, with the calm assurance that we can all inform each other. Lofty for sure, but what else should we be doing to prepare the future of our Republic?