As my Hackworth Fellowship draws to a close, I reflect upon my last year and all of the interactions I have had during my undergraduate career. How have I engaged in civil discourse? Have my interactions changed? Do I have the humility to listen? Have I empowered others to speak? After co-hosting a free speech and civil discourse panel with W. Kamau Bell, I realized I haven’t quite reflected on myself and where I stand after all of these blog posts, events, and dinners. Mr. Bell planted four major seeds in my mind that have been germinating the last few days. I want to share them with you to nurture in your mind. I hope that these will help situate you in a place better equipped to handle conversations with diverse opinions and backgrounds.
- You have to fail. If you were to take any skill you learned as a child and extrapolate the primary lesson from it, you would learn that failing is key to getting better. You can’t simply walk into a conversation and expect civil discourse to happen. You will be uncomfortable. They will be uncomfortable. You will stumble, trip, and fall and that’s okay. You will learn. Kamau Bell claimed he wasn’t born funny. He learned to be the way that he is from his life experiences. Similarly, we can’t walk into a conversation and learn to talk to all types of people in a civic manner. Your experiences will culminate to better prepare you to handle those types of conversations. Even when you feel experienced at it, stumbling will still happen. And that, too, is okay.
A great example of this can be seen on W. Kamau Bell’s CNN show United Shades of America. He uses comedy to diffuse tension and bring comfort out in others. Most times it works and Kamau and his subject can laugh together. Other times, he gets awkward stares from people that don’t get it or don’t want to engage- and that is fine.
- It’s about working a crowd. During our Panel, Mr. Bell said, time and time again, that you can’t get in a room and say, “Okay we’re going to have civil discourse now” and expect it to happen. As a comedian, he has to create a space and work his audience to establish civil discourse. In United Shades of Color, he comes into these spaces with producers, cameramen, lighting specialists, makeup artists, and so on. They manufacture a space where participants are cognizant of the conversations that they are going to have. Making civil discourse happen is not a lazy feat.
Sometimes it may appear effortless but that’s only when things align perfectly. Most times, you have to actively pursue a space and conversation and continuously work at it. You can’t give up. We are plagued with apathy and cynicism. We give up too much, too quickly.
- Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Mr. Bell quoted American humorist and writer, Finley Peter Dunne who said, "... it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The same can be said for comedy, talking to your family at Thanksgiving, and civil discourse. When you are truly comfortable with engaging in civil discourse, make this your goal. We are familiar and comfortable with our circles that share our beliefs. However, we don’t take to the afflicted. We stop ourselves from engaging with the afflicted because we fear that we may have something to lose or that we will become afflicted. What good does that do your community (and society at large) if we don’t take that chance to comfort our neighbors and fellow community members?
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. I struggle with this the most. The impediment to civil discourse is hurt feelings. There’s no doubt about it. Someone will say something and it insults you as a person. You feel hurt and you don’t want to talk to them anymore. They make you mad and attack your identity so you get defensive. There’s a degree of legitimacy to that. If someone says something offensive to a point where you can’t handle it then okay. But most conversations don’t get to that point. There’s a level of insult that we can handle if we simply don’t take the words to heart.
In United Shades of America’s very first episode, Kamau Bell interviews the KKK. One of the members tells him that interracial marriage is an abomination condemned by God in the Bible. Kamau Bell is married to a white woman and is, thus, in an interracial marriage. Rather than take offense to that statement and attack his foe or walk away, he uses humor to diffuse the tension and asks where interracial marriage stands on a scale of sin in comparison to murder. The KKK says interracial marriage is worse than the sin of murder. As absurd as the example is, it goes to show that if you don’t take yourself too seriously (and the person that is saying hurtful things that appear to be an affront to your identity) that the world won’t end. You can walk away from a conversation in control of your feelings, not letting someone else get the best of you.