I am thrilled to have another contribution as part of the conversation going on in the Kindness Community, A Word Imagined, from Dr. Jeff M. Christian about how we can all grow a healthier discourse in our online communities. His thoughts offer some creative ways to cultivate a kinder experience that makes space for a healthier, healing discourse in our society. Thank you, Jeff, for your insights:
The New Dinner Table
Only about an hour before company arrives. The smells of onions and garlic are starting to permeate the rest of the house beyond the kitchen, smells that will hit the guests the minute they cross the threshold of the front door. By that time, the food will have magically transformed from separate ingredients into whole courses.
The table is set. You went through the stacks in the cabinet to make sure that you did not bring out one of the chipped plates. The glasses, forks, knives, spoons. The bread in the oven will not finish baking until five minutes after the guests arrive. That is on purpose. Everything is in its right place.
The guests arrive. You shake hands, perhaps a cordial hug shared among those who do not know one another quite well enough to embrace. These are not the kinds of guests like family where you let down your guard. These guests have never seen you on a bad day. They do not know about some of the pain you carry down deep. For now, handshakes and side hugs will do.
A Season of Handshakes and Side Hugs
I am wondering these days if a season of handshakes and side hugs might be in order, in some sort of general sense. The tone of voice with one another online, for instance, is more like that of a dysfunctional family forced to eat Thanksgiving dinner together when no one actually wants to be there. Comments sections of online news stories are filled with drunk uncles who yell more and more as the night wears on. Raised voices fly above the table cloth only a few inches above the appropriately placed fall colors and side dishes. Grandma makes a passing comment about the price of her prescription medication and three-sheets-to-the-wind-uncle verbally pounces on her for saying something that may have the potential to undermine all of western democracy.
I know things are strange. In no way do I suggest that we bury our heads in the sand. On the contrary, past civilizations thrived in times of healthy debate. When people think critically together, lights come on where people wind up saying things like, “Well, I never thought of it that way.” Civil discourse is not only necessary; it is good. It is healthy. It is, well, civil.
The only way to resurrect the corpse of civil discourse is to hit the pause button on the entire project and practice some recently forgotten virtues. We need to welcome one another like acquaintances spending time together for the first time, like people who will take the time to actually get to know one another. We need to set our tables assuming the best in others, rather than holding those who might potentially disagree with me in suspicious contempt.
Most of all, we need to listen to one another.