The Power and Lost Art of Civility

Tuesday, April 9, 2019
Deborah Hill
Krista Tippett, plenary speaker at Embracing the Power of Welcome

Krista Tippett, the curator of the Civil Conversation Project, seeks to inspire people to speak together differently to live together differently. She frames the project as "an evolving adventure in audio, events, resources, and initiatives for planting relationship and conversation around the subjects we fight about intensely — and those we’ve barely begun to discuss.”

I found myself leaning in as she spoke because this challenge—communicating in ways that allow people to build trust and relationships—is at the center of our Durham Model Food Community project. It's at the center of any stakeholder engagement project, and particularly ones that try to reckon with the legacies of structural racism.

In her plenary talk at the Embracing the Power of Welcome – Civil Conversations conference in Asheville, NC in April, Tippett said that we need reinvent civil discourse and to see it embodied in our 21st Century context. It’s something people are hungry for, she said and was the impetus to develop the Civil Conversations project.

The idea for the Civil Conversations project came about in 2011. Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords was shot at a supermarket. The U.S. repealed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law barring gays from openly serving in the military. Protests in the Middle East and Northern Africa became what is now known as the Arab Spring. And the contentious U.S. presidential election season was a time when “we were still, as a society, surprised by the toxic and vitriolic language that became the norm for public discourse,” she said.

Tippett spoke about the time she spent in Silicon Valley interviewing people at technology companies. She recalls that it became so clear to her that in many cases technology was designed for things—not for people. The Internet, for example, has no moral framework for human interaction. There are no boundaries, and this has created a powerful pulpit for hate. Such hate is thrown at us day in and day out. 

"Hate is a burden that burns us from the inside out," said Tippett.”We need to take technology and apply it to what humans need—that embodies our best selves and creates boundaries that support and uplift us all.”

But what does that really mean? She talks of virtues such as civility, hospitality, generous listening and humility not as an eye-rollingly prim, outdated, moral straightjacket of conduct. Instead, she sees these concepts as a powerful language of being we can share with each other. A language of being that allows society to move towards the future we want for our children.

"We live in a moment of open challenges that are intimate and civilizational at the same time. We're addressing elemental human conditions," Tippett explains. "Civility is something for us to reinvent anew as something muscular and powerful.”

Tippett argues for the power of deep and generous listening that goes beyond “waiting for our turn to talk,” and creates an authentic opening where someone can share their internal dialogue. In these moments, the world becomes softer, and stereotypes and distrust are dampened, she explains.

She was honored by President Obama in 2014 with the National Humanities Medal for her Civil Conversations work, and her On Being podcast series carried on over 400 public radio stations in the US. 

“We all need to belong to each other,” she said. “Offering hospitality to someone from the ‘other side’ of an argument creates an inviting and trust-building space. A meaningful encounter in a space of trust is life-altering. It resets conditions in ways that allow us to let our guards down and surprising each other. To find a connection with one another."

We should be fermenters of social good, she said. “We are still a developing nation in developing a truly multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy…What we’re after is transformational healing, and that takes a long time. We’re in the midst of a very long project together.”

She spoke of love not as a squishy weak thing that should be avoided, but as the moral power to drive civilization. “It is the only thing big enough to create the common life our world demands.”

Right now, she said, “love” has no place in geopolitics. It is used as a balm during a crisis, but not as a tool for making change. “Love looks for a way to be kind even as it seeks to be honest. The most successful social reformers of our time have always called on humanity to love,” she said, citing Martin Luther King among others.

To create the future we want together, the common life we need, we must reinvent love as a practical tool for use in the public sphere. As a strong muscle that is generative in nature, she explains.

Tippett’s deep thinking on the power of words and conduct resonate with me. Working with community members on the Durham project requires humility and an understanding that each person in the room brings with them the entirety of their life experiences. It takes vulnerability to reach across the table and make authentic connection. But it's worth it.

The Embracing the Power of Welcome – Civil Conversations conference was organized by the Duke Divinity School and sponsored by The Duke Endowment.