When Billings Public Library Director Gavin Woltjer selected civility two months ago as the topic for Thursday’s panel discussion, “I had no idea what was about to transpire,” with all eyes on Montana following GOP congressional candidate Greg Gianforte’s alleged assault Wednesday of reporter Ben Jacobs.
Four panelists — Sam Boerboom, who teaches communications and theater at Montana State University Billings; Jolane Flanigan, a member of Rocky Mountain College’s communication studies faculty; Mike Mulberry, pastor of Billings First Church; and David Crisp of the website Last Best News — steered a crowd of about 60 people through ways that the nation’s discourse has grown more coarse and how civility might be restored.
“Civility is a habit. You have to enact it and perform it over and over again,” Boerboom said.
“In a rich, vibrant democracy, there’s an undertone of people getting along and trying to solve their problems,” Flanigan said, adding that her research shows that for some people, authentic communication — and not politeness — is most important.
Mulberry suggested the nation’s founders “recognized that we want to be challenged and questioned as a way of growing, and that all begins by talking with people different than you are.”
Crisp said the problem today is that “incivility starts at the top (of the federal government), and that makes me nervous.” By contrast, during past struggles, all of them violent — the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the years following the Civil War — the federal government “stood up for principles like civility and the First Amendment.”
Asked by Woltjer if protest challenges or reinforces civility, Mulberry said protest ought to take place alongside the event — not “five miles away,” as in the way protesters are now separated from, for example, presidential nominating conventions. “We segregate protesters so far away that it has to be screamed loudly and intently, and there’s no way to do that civilly. You have to be willing to be transformed by the other person.”
Boerboom blamed the 24-hour news cycle for “creating content that requires scandal-based news. That sells, but it creates a lot of polarization.” Through serendipity, people would do well to seek out news sources they normally don’t view, read or listen to, he said.
Flanigan said she’s amazed at how many friendships and even relationships between family members have ended in recent years because “there is now a certain intensity that I don’t think has happened like this before. That intensity has to do with emotion and fear and fear’s friend, shame.”
She said a good strategy for growing civility is to “greet our partners with curiosity,” which she has learned by working with children with autism. When she asked one child why he chases others nonstop around the playground, he responded, “That’s how you make friends. You chase them until they stop running.”
Mulberry urged listeners to “pay attention to your Sabbath rhythms. The culture says the clock is going 24/7 and you’d better pay attention, but figure our what you will give your heart to.” And “build the common,” he said, “so that we can look at each other face to face and grow in ways that take on things from other cultures.”
For Boerboom, it’s a matter of assigning three emotions – cynical, sentimental and stoic — their proper focus. We should be cynical about our institutions, including political parties, and sentimental toward others, “finding ways to be open to people, even those who really piss you off.” We should look at ourselves stoically, “finding self-control and self-mastery. Don’t roll over, but don’t feel so entitled.”
“The nation has turned its eyes on us, and we have the chance to show the nation and the world exactly how we can be civil here in Montana,” Woltjer said at the conclusion of the 100-minute panel discussion. “You have taken that first step tonight.”