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After the Election, Let’s Discuss Ideas with Civility

The election season has finally, mercifully come to an end. Whether “your” candidate won or lost, we all share the same circumstances – namely, a divided and polarized nation.

If you thought the inflammatory rhetoric, outlandish comments and it’s-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it proclamations would end with the election cycle, a cursory review of Facebook or Twitter comments would dash such hopes.

One could posit many factors contributing to the current climate, but ultimately the reasons are less important than our individual and collective response.

In his concession speech, Mitt Romney offered a step in the right direction by quickly and decisively moving past this year’s contentious election campaign.

Having thanked his supporters, Romney congratulated the president, his family and supporters, wished them well and stated that he would pray for the president to be successful in guiding the nation.

Near the conclusion of his speech, Romney again emphasized the need to move beyond the polarized incivility that seems to increase every election year.

“At times like these,” he stated, “we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.

In his acceptance speech, President Obama joined Romney in seeking to move toward a more civil conversation about the perpetually competing visions regarding how to lead the nation.

“We may have battled fiercely,” the president proclaimed, “but it’s only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future. From George to Lenore to their son Mitt, the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service and that is the legacy that we honor and applaud tonight. In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”

Differences and divides still exist, of course, as they always, inevitably will. There has never been and will never be a time in this nation’s history when there is not disagreement and debate regarding how and in what direction the nation should be led.

This means that a more positive way forward is not a matter of agreement but engagement.

In other words, civility will not be the result of a fusion or amalgamation of Democratic and Republican principles resulting in a tertium quid that conjoins the parties and unifies the nation.

Nor is this a goal to be desired. As I previously wrote, informed, passionate debate enables our political system to be effective.

What is needed is dialogue between competing ideas and ideologies that is informed and civil. These two elements are inextricable because civility most often results from an educated populace whose informed status inherently makes it less fearful.

Thus, fear, like prejudice, derives its power from ignorance. We fear that which we do not know or understand.

It is easy to demonize someone or something from a distance. It is difficult to see your opponents as specters when you converse with them and begin to understand the motivation and logic informing their perspectives.

This does not mean that you will magically come to agreement with opponents. Nor does it mean that you will never become upset or angry about their political perspectives.

The goal is not to compromise one’s perspective “so we can all just get along.” Rather, the goal is information that leads to understanding that leads to civility based on shared respect for another as people of value and worth – even when we profoundly disagree.

On “Morning Joe” the day after the election, Joe Scarborough summarized the goal of civil dialogue well: “People confuse civility with compromise. You and I can disagree; in fact, we can be on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. We can still be polite to each other and talk it out. I respect you for what you believe, and you respect me for what I believe. That’s not being a sellout; that’s actually being constructive and putting the United States of America’s best interests ahead of your own political party’s best interests.”

Thankfully, both presidential candidates have voiced their desire to set aside the polarized and destructive approach to politics and find a way to work together for the common good.

Thankfully, nationally recognized and respected political commentators have voiced their desire to do the same.

These are steps in the right direction, but both they and “we the people” must now walk the walk. We all – politicians, pundits and populace – must find a way to civility, especially when we profoundly disagree.

The way toward a more civil society is simple, but profoundly difficult.

We must be willing to cease using inflammatory rhetoric aimed to incite and upset, and choose to sit down with those of opposing opinions and perspectives and do the hard work of seeking to understand.

Some ideological divides may seem greater with greater understanding, while others may seem lesser.

Whatever the case may be, we can move toward a more civil society (even in the political realm) if we are willing to make the difficult but profoundly important effort of seeking to understand a different perspective.

Zach Dawes is an ordained minister who lives in Austin, Texas, having served churches in Georgia and North Carolina. He blogs here.