Civility gets short shrift in today’s increasingly polarized society. But the creator and host of public radio’s On Being believes that with a 21st century sensibility, civility is on the verge of staging a comeback.
Krista Tippett admits that civility “is kind of an intense thing to be discussing in the year 2017,” which is why, she says, “I always rush to add qualifiers like ‘muscular’ or ‘adventurous.’ I worry that the word ‘civility’ has connotations of niceness and tameness and politeness that are too mild to be an antidote to our current political culture.”
The Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestelling author, who received the National Humanities Medal from the White House in 2014, spoke on March 5 in Hollins’ duPont Chapel before an audience from both the campus and greater Roanoke communities. Sponsored by the university’s Distinguished Speakers Fund in conjunction with Hollins’ gender and women’s studies department, Tippett’s address was a celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8.
In contrast with the frustration and despair that shadow conventional wisdom about the national dialogue, Tippett said, “I find it helpful and even calming to pull back to a long and wide lens on the challenge of this moment in history, its possibilities for growth and change. This terrifying and wondrous century is throwing open basic questions that the 20th century thought it had answered. We are reimagining the very nature of authority, of leadership, of community. I believe we are in the midst of nothing less than a reformation, but this time it’s a reformation of all our institutions. We are each called as human beings to determine as best we can in ourselves what is just and right and true, live by that, and let that be a compass for the change we can make in the world we can see and touch. At the same time, it is up to us to form and inhabit resilient, creative, peaceable realities in an interdependent way that is unparalleled in human history.”
Tippett offered “a few encouragements” in achieving civility:
- “Words matter. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, and how we treat others.”
- “Rediscover questions as civic tools and listening as a social art. It is very hard to resist a generous question, and we all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty and revelation. They may not want answers, at least not immediately. They might be raised in order to be pondered. Listening is about being present. It involves a kind of vulnerability, a willingness, very simply, to be surprised, to let go of assumptions, to take in ambiguity, and understand the humanity behind the words of the other.”
- “Dare to claim and embody love as a public good. Love is the superstar of virtues, but also the most watered-down word in the English language. It’s audacity is in its potential to cross tribal lines.”
Tippett cautioned that “Common ground is not the same thing as common life. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to one another with dignity without insisting on a goal of common ground that would leave all our questions hanging or calling the whole thing a failure when that didn’t happen. Common ground is not the same thing as common life, which encompasses all our disciplines and endeavors and all of ourselves as citizens, as professionals, as people of faith, and as neighbors, family, and friends. If we insist on common ground as a pre-condition, we narrow our possibilities.”
Tippett also noted that the physiological and psychological stress society suffers as a result of constant uncertainty and change creates pain and fear, which in turn provoke anger. All are potential roadblocks to civility.
But, she emphasized, “I believe that you and I, we all have it in us to be nourishers of discernment and fermenters of healing, to discover how to calm fear and plant the seeds of the robust common life that we desire. This is civic work, this is human, spiritual work in the most expansive 21st century sense of that language.
“I have seen that wisdom, both personal and collective, emerge through those moments when we have to hold seemingly opposite realities in creative tension and interplay, power and frailty, birth and death, pain and hope, beauty and brokenness, mystery and conviction, calm and fierceness, mine and yours.”
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