Letter to the Editor: Can we get back to civil discourse?

At first, this time seemed no different than the other times, when people would simply discuss their differences. Innocently, he asked strangers in a store why they weren’t wearing masks.  He was shocked when one person began mocking him and calling him mean, shame-filled names.   He was further shocked when the intensity reached a level that was getting physically dangerous.  A man was yelling at him, his fists were clenched, and he was asked, “Do you want to take this outside?”

That was the man’s first encounter with this new divided America.  At other times, to other people and for other questions, a superior, mocking, tone of voice would be deployed, and they would shake their head in disappointment, as if he was stupid and ignorant.

At this point he was beginning to see that there was not going to be any meaningful discussion, nor was there going to be any discussion that would change his mind or the other person’s mind.   They each seemed capped with the information they had already acquired.

The hardest part of all of this, for him, was that the political rhetoric he was hearing he had already heard from other people.  At first, he wondered where they had heard it because nothing on his television was reporting any of the gross misconduct that he was hearing about from some of the individuals he knew.  Yet each of them was reporting the same alleged incidents, verbatim.  He tried listening to the news channel responsible for the distribution of the one-sided allegations but the name-calling and the total lack of respect and civility towards people of different political persuasions was too much for him, and his innate respect and civility towards people literally forced him to stop watching and listening.  He felt like people from both sides of each political party were talking, but the only listening being done were the people listening to the speakers from their own party.  No one from the other political party was listening, or if they were listening, they were simply preparing their caustic reply.

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And then he remembered an attribute that he had read about a long time ago, and that attribute was Anticipatory Obedience.

The definition of that phrase is that anticipatory obedience means adapting instinctively, without reflecting, to a new situation.  The definition said “adapting instinctively, without reflecting” and without reflecting means “without thinking deeply or carefully” or, to put it simply, “without thought”.  Which finally made sense to him, and answered the question of why do otherwise intelligent people follow theories which have no basis in fact or reality, and for which there is no information that can change their mind?  The answer appears to be that their behavior is instinctive for them.

There are also two other traits in the equation which stop any civil discourse and those two traits are the ability to hate and the ability to be mean.  Name-calling contains both of those traits.

The next thing the man did was to examine himself to see if he had this same characteristic, and he found that he did have areas where he too acted instinctively rather than thoughtfully.  He remembered watching Western’s on TV as a kid, and he remembered watching the posse’s being formed to go catch the bank robber or the cattle rustler, and after they caught him, they would hang him.  Sometimes there was one person who tried to speak thoughtfully but he was usually bullied out of the way and the lynching went ahead.  He had always been struck by the fact that these men lived meaningful lives- they were policemen, bankers, blacksmiths, and shopkeepers- but when they got together, they acted instinctively using hate and meanness, and as their emotions rose their intellects declined.  Soon the heinous act was carried out in a rage, fueled by some shared instinct between them all.  It wasn’t until the law intervened and consequences began to be meted out that the lawless situation began to change for the better.

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The man wondered again if there were any words that he could say that would reach to the instinctive parts of others, and cause them to reflect and give thought to their life’s choices, instead of acting instinctively.  He doubted there were words, but being an optimist, he decided to try.

Peter Skeels

Lake Almanor