Can We Educate for Decency, Please?

We live in a challenging time for civil discourse and I worry about the lessons being caught by young people. Prominent rudeness and inconsiderate behavior are toxic and contagious. Leaders prey on common insecurities to inflame suspicion and doubt here and elsewhere in the world. Feelings of insecurity are stressful, make us fearful, and can escalate into a polarizing social disengagement that can splinter any society.

Insecurity and fear play a powerful role in the human mind. We are ever on guard against harmful threats and that has largely served our species well in securing our survival. For most Americans, though, survival is not what’s at stake when our common fears are triggered. Rather, we may instantly gauge an experience and elevate its importance beyond any actual risk. This occurs without the benefit of careful consideration and serves up the self-preserving trio of responses – fight, flight, or freeze. In essence, a mild panic ensues. Often, the pattern of behavior that follows is well rehearsed in our lives and leads to a predictable conclusion. But, does that perceived threat really matter?

The human brain developed to save us from straightforward hazards such as the hungry lion or the deadly snake. Today’s social and political issues are far more complex problems to solve. Instantaneous misappraisals and responses are inopportune and inadequate to these tasks. Lacking deliberate, reflective thinking, individuals may fall prey to bias, false assumptions, and unsupportable conclusions that invite division and antagonism. Real peril lurks, ripe for the descent of attitudes into suspicion, anger, bigotry, and worse. In public discourse, trust suffers. Opponents face off and fierce alliances thwart efforts at unity.

The unease that Americans feel has many causes – other people’s bad behavior, unfavorable economics, health issues, natural or man-made disasters, and more – but a disruptive, blame-seeking national squabble only aggravates our anxieties and divisions. This is no solution for our country. Communication suffers. Compromise and progress are stifled.

We are better than this.

Where is the evidence of clear thinking and emotional wisdom to help us make the smart choices we require? Young people must understand how negative emotions impact their thinking and behavior, and learn how to interrupt their own unmerited reactions. Where is the voice of reason that sets an example for idealistic young people who aspire to responsible leadership? We need role models of decency and respect. Who represents the examination and appreciation of the common ground on which most of us actually stand? Cohesion in society requires the public demonstration of our individual social consciences. Who will show the way?

Failing to find a rational, unifying voice on the national horizon, I’ve concluded that we – every one of us – must demonstrate and inspire in one another the best forms of hearty conversation, without overheated or witless contention. This is a lesson worth teaching to young people.

Three indispensable principles of democracy – citizen participation, equality, and political tolerance – steer us toward a more considerate and respectful exchange that benefits all. A little patience and humility wouldn’t hurt, either. If our greatest challenges were easily solved, they would never have evolved into such perplexing puzzles. Knowing that many great minds have struggled to explore cures or fixes, we must approach such topics with a healthy skepticism about the perfection of our own thought and carry an open mind as to the assets in another’s argument. Open mindedness is an act of freedom. We do not commit disloyalty to our personal convictions by withholding judgment of another’s.

Rather, we elevate the quality of our communication and refine our relationship. Encouragement, not censorship, opens hearts and minds in dialogue. As we all know, a little kindness goes a long way.

Some self-discipline favors positive outcomes in this quest for decency. We have an intriguing example for young people in our nation’s early history. Ben Franklin, the diplomat nonpareil of the original 13 colonies, was celebrated and admired in Paris as he negotiated essential French support for the revolution in America. He earnestly held to high standards of discourse. Franklin was a keen listener. He favored understanding another’s position before positing his own. He was graceful in accepting other opinions and gained trust by the warmth of his appreciation. Only after convincing others that he accurately understood their perspective, did he propose his own alternative thoughts. By cultivating consequential relationships, he achieved highly effective and beneficial results.

Franklin stands out as a unique example to young people. It is remarkable that young Ben withdrew from school in Boston at age 10 and left his family at age 16 to strike out independently. At 18, he was living and working on his own in London, England, conscientiously developing the diplomatic style that enabled his future political achievements. His charm and social grace were not accumulated under genteel tutelage. Rather, he read voraciously, embraced culture and society enthusiastically, and thought deeply and intentionally about his conversations and experiences. His disciplined habits in these formative years were motivated by confidence in reason and steered by intellectual integrity. As he matured, he shaped his behavior to his developing ideals, as young adults strive to do.

Franklin’s example is crucial because it is attainable by others who value fair-minded civil conversation and adhere to their own better virtues. Perhaps in our own conversations with young people we can seek, first, a full understanding of their opinions. Demonstrating a desire to understand their points of view, we honor the equal right to express ideas. Listening closely and actively, we respect their effort and, simultaneously, invite them to reason more logically about their ideas. In this manner, we help them to recognize and practice critical thinking and gain insight into the larger context of their own emotional and intellectual lives. This type of exercise confirms and strengthens their faith in fair-minded dialogue and the careful exploration of ideas for mutual benefit. The interplay of personal feelings and thoughts is managed in the service of a higher purpose. Instantaneous assessments are seen as only the first of many possible interpretations of evidence. The reasoning mind is capable of so much more. These are powerful lessons to educate young people who will pick up and struggle with our own unresolved national challenges. The exercise of elevated civil discourse advances the prospect that we reach more satisfactory solutions to the great issues of our time. Isn’t it about time that we give this a proper effort? We are, after all, all in this together.