Not finding common ground has been an issue that in recent years has divided families, separated neighbors and splintered our social and political fabric. As we begin the National Week of Conversation from April 5th-13th, I would like to share my own take on common ground to illustrate just how far our dysfunction has gone and how urgent a crisis this is.
Take neighbor vs. neighbor. These confrontations are increasing across America. There is the incident last year when a neighbor unleashed a verbal tirade on a little girl because she had a lemonade stand on her block. In 2017, Senator Rand Paul was tackled by a neighbor who accused him of stacking brush near his lawn, breaking six of Paul’s ribs. Someone I know attacked his neighbor — a prominent doctor — with a rake because the doctor yelled at him after he blew some debris from his yard onto an unused, unkempt wooded area of the doctor’s back yard. The victim turned perpetrator landed in the slammer for three days for raking the doctor over. In addition to physical incivility, surveys show that increasingly neighbors are not talking to neighbors because of political differences.
Last summer, after living in my development for fourteen years, I was confronted by a neighbor while walking my dog. I live in an area of just 22 homes, and neighbors pretty much get along. But that day was different. “Your dog is peeing on my tree lawn,” the neighbor yelled. Thinking that my neighbor was joking, I replied, “And you own your tree lawn? Every tree lawn in America is common ground.”
“No it’s not,” she continued. “This is my tree lawn and I don’t want your dog on it. Have your dog pee on your own tree lawn. How would you feel if I had a dog pee on your lawn?”
“You’re welcome to it anytime,” I shot back and continued on my walk. Truth be told, I shouldn’t have responded with a snarky comment. Needless to say, I was agitated, she was not happy, and neither of us was being neighborly. In this encounter, I recognize that nobody was being an angel.
It could have ended there. However, I was determined that my neighbor and I would not fall into a cycle of incivility. My solution was to have a conversation. I really didn’t know the neighbor who accosted me, but I did know her husband, so I gave him a call. I acknowledged to him that his wife and I had disagreed about the dog issue and I listened as he explained how he and his wife don’t like seeing brown spots on their tree lawn.
“I respect you, but I believe that your attitude is misguided,” I said. “Everywhere in America, neighbors allow neighbors’ dogs to pee on their tree lawns. And the tree lawns are widely regarded as common ground. But, because we have been long-time neighbors, if it really bothers you and your wife, I will honor your wishes and just avoid your lawn.”
That’s how it ended. In a disagreement that could easily have escalated into a continual war of words or worse, he and I chose first to have a conversation and, after I understood his family’s point of view, I chose to compromise.
Conversation and compromise are happening less and less in our country. Pearce Godwin, who heads up the National Conversation Project, creators of the National Week of Conversation, says that “We have infected ourselves with an epidemic of outrage and offense that’s reached a pandemic level and is attacking us from within. This social polarization not only threatens our democracy but is destroying close personal relationships.”
Incivility is becoming a new normal. Recently, a weather woman at an NBC affiliate was harassed on Twitter by viewers who thought she was too pregnant to be on television. The Twitter barrage was relentless, commenting on her physical looks, the maternity clothes she wore and the intrusion on the weather map caused by her increasingly pregnant belly. I’m sure people have had those thoughts before, but they didn’t act on them because society wouldn’t have tolerated their offensive actions.
Road rage has been consistently on the rise over the past several years. Surveys report that eighty percent of Americans have participated in at least one road rage incident in the past year. In January, a Boston road rage incident escalated to a new level as one motorist grabbed onto the hood of an SUV while the other motorist accelerated to hazardous speeds on a busy highway. Ultimately, bystanders and police intervened.
Recently, in another personal encounter, I called someone whom I have known for more than thirty years, and my call was greeted by him saying “Go to hell,” then click. I was confused and offended because I wasn’t calling too late at night or too early in the morning. Choosing not to ignore his comment, I instead decided to text him about the incident. “What have I ever done to you to deserve such a comment?” I asked. He immediately called me back. “Stuart I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it was you,” he said. I accepted his apology but, really, no one deserves a comment like that.
I have discussed our country’s civility issues with many, and a consensus about the reasons for this behavior is very clear: this level of incivility or in-your-face behavior is happening because people believe it is authorized and acceptable. They see the President’s degrading behavior on Twitter or at rallies where he bashes and belittles others. They see ordinary people getting in your face. They see Twitter and Facebook ablaze with obnoxious comments or retaliatory jabs. They see reality television deriding people. And, like contaminants in the water supply, the negative effects are gradually seeping into our system, making social interactions unhealthy.
The upcoming presidential election year is bound to make incivility even more toxic. The more the President rants, the more Democrats will retaliate in kind. That is, unless citizens rail against negative talk the same way we have repelled hate talk. Party affiliation should not matter where decency is at stake. Shut off the talking heads, write letters to the editor condemning uncivil behavior, Tweet and vote your disapproval of gutter talk and, above all, have conversation.
Community broadcasters — even Facebook Live — can do us a great service by sponsoring civil conversation sessions, demonstrating that you can disagree without being disagreeable. But neighbors, families, friends, faith communities, business leaders and co-workers can do this as well. The more we retreat from conversation, even if it is uncomfortable, the more we sanction isolation, tribalism, un-neighborliness and offensive speech.
There is little doubt that our social norms are changing. That said, if we allow in-your-face, rude and crude to become normal, funny and okay, shame on us. Let’s take that first step — have a conversation!
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, which through its Project Love®, VIA® Workforce Training, Purple America® and Be Kind® Stick Together® character-education programs, has 400,000 students participating in more than 900 schools in all 50 states. Values-in-Action® empowers students and adults to build communities of kindness, caring and respect through programs that teach, promote and provide skills and tools than enable individuals to make positive values-based decisions every day. www.viafdn.org