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A Campaign for Civility: The Virtue of Being Nice in Political Discourse

09/05/2012 01:11 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2012

With the Republican convention past and the Democratic convention upon us, it seems like a ripe time to ponder the tenor of public discourse. Last week, our ten-year-old son was required to watch portions of the convention each day and it's always refreshing to see public discourse through the earnest lens of elementary school. His overall observation: They aren't very nice.

His observation reminded of an informal decision I made several months ago to become a Pollyanna in the comment universe; to be nice. I imagine that for many of us the word "nice" carries much baggage and may not possess the intellectual depth we want to attach to our thoughts, but then I think of Pollyanna. I loved the movie Pollyanna as a child because the girl confronted crankiness, despair, meanness of heart and smallness of spirit in everyone she met from the town bully who was also her aunt to the depressed yet powerful Reverend. Despite her vulnerability, she looked for concrete ways to find beauty in the midst of cynicism and empowered people to change for the good, which they did! I am probably a pastor, in part, because of Pollyanna. So, why not try being nice?

My decision was also inspired by reading Dr. Sears' Baby Book where after the birth of our first child I learned how to calm a crying baby, which seemed to be an apt metaphor for the level of vitriol I often observed in public conversation. Through Sear's advice I quickly grasped that the core concept in calming a crying child lies in a delicate ratio: the more upset your infant becomes, the calmer you must be. If your baby is crying and breathing in quick, jagged breaths, then you inhale slowly and exhale deeply. If your baby is screaming, you whisper softly. If your baby is arching his back and frantically pushing away from you, you hold him close while gliding slowly in a gentle rocking motion.

I have mothered three infants and I will be the first to admit that reading and following this advice are two completely different things. The relentless crying of a hysterical infant taps into everything that is hysterical in you and thus the impulse to mimic the wails is nearly infectious in its power, which means that keeping calm demands the mental, emotional, and spiritual strength of the most accomplished guru. But by golly, nine times out of ten, it works. Even in the case of colic when the telos of a calm and contented baby remains elusive, a colicky parent does nothing to help the situation. And while complaining about the tantrums to other parents may feel like a salve in the moment, in the long run, only a plan to use the parental power of agency in real time acts of calm and peace coupled with the overall support of the community will work.

At home I call this parenting, and at work and in society at large, I call this civility.

I started blogging a few years ago. Although I was accustomed as a pastor and hospice professional to responding to criticism, I was unprepared for the passionate, anonymous throng of comments I would absorb. I'll be the first to say, my skin was paper thin. But I cared about what I was writing, so I followed Dr. Sears' advice and actively continued to take great care in researching and wording my reflections while practicing my deep breathing and rocking and tried to hold close the engagement of the community at large. And truthfully, there were many times that I was pleasantly surprised by the caring community created by those who chose to comment. I have experienced offerings of condolences, moments of empathy and forgiveness, even the offering of a song as a sign of encouragement. In these rare instances I have thought to myself, "Gosh, that's nice."

And so I started to wonder how to weave civility into public discourse through being intentionally nice. I was encouraged to see that the Knights of Columbus are sponsoring a "Civility in America" Facebook campaign to respond to the statistic that 8 out of 10 Americans are frustrated by the tone of our political discourse. But maybe here at the Huffington Post, we can commit to rewarding being nice as if there is a "civility badge" that can be earned. As commenters, we can already aspire to earn badges for being well-connected, for offering an especially insightful comment, or for being well adept at flagging abusive comments, but maybe we need to act as though there is also a badge for being nice. What if I don't particularly agree with a commenter's perspective, but I feel that his or her comment exemplifies a high level of tact that helps to build up the general civility of the dialogue as well as honors the value of diversity espoused by the site? I don't want to "fan" the commenter since I may not really "like" him or her, and yet I would feel the urge to affirm not the content of what was shared but the character with which it was communicated. In these instances, I can simply comment back "thank you for contributing wisely and compassionately to a more civil society," an informal way of gifting a civility badge.

Now, I know that many people may never aspire to be dubbed as nice, but perhaps simply seeing that others are rewarded for civility will cause even the most acerbic among us to pause and think through not only what we want to say but how. Rewarding nice responses might even make us nicer readers. Reading and responding nicely or with an interpretation of good will reflects a genuine desire to broaden our horizons through honest engagement with the thought of another. As scholar Wiercinski remarks about Gadamer's hermeneutics and the art of conversation: when we utilize good will in our search for understanding we show that we are

"free human beings ...[who] do not seek to prove their own points by finding weakness in another's statement, but rather seek to reinforce the other's point of view to find what it can reveal." In our search for political, communal, even universal truth and meaning, the first step may be nice.

Being civil with Pollyanna-esque comments will not be an easy task. It is far more tempting and human to simply complain, become mean-spirited ourselves, or even try to shame those who comment sarcastically or unkindly. Though shaming can be an effective change agent so can positive reinforcement. Will there always be colicky commenters among us whose vitriolic rants and snaps are symptoms of a source issue that no level of nice is going to unravel? Sure. But who among us hasn't responded unkindly to someone simply because we were tired or needed something to eat, regretted a remark said on a day when we were just plain cranky, or lashed out in haste when someone touched on a hot button topic. Nine times out of ten, the concerted effort of individuals around us to consistently respond with grace and kindness might just slow us down in order for us to tend not only to what we say but also the character with which we say it. We may never all become "Glad Girls" as Pollyanna would should she log in as commenter, but a little bit of nice would be nice.

To read more about family, aging, faith and civility from Amy Ziettlow, visit www.familyscholars.org.