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The Wyoming Humanities Council partnered with the Casper Star-Tribune to provide a monthly editorial forum for selected Wyoming citizens, including youth, to offer their views on civility as it relates to various topics such as civic dialogue, sportsmanship, cyber-civility, national and international politics, family, and school bullying. Humanities scholars, leaders, and everyday people were selected to write monthly for the Casper Star-Tribune.The guest editorials were distributed to all Wyoming newspapers through the Wyoming Press Association.
Dates: Monthly, October 2010 through September 2011
Civility really does matter
Sunday, October 24, 2010
It's a scene that would be difficult to imagine today.
Two men from different political parties running for the same seat in the Wyoming Legislature in the 1970s needed to travel to campaign in another community within their legislative district. So the opposing candidates hopped in a car and traveled together, splitting up after they arrived at their destination for some door-to-door campaigning, then reuniting at the agreed-upon time for the ride home.
One of these men was my grandfather, Hight Proffit, a Democratic legislator and rancher from Uinta County. The other was his Republican challenger, Harry Lee Harris, an Evanston attorney. Whatever political differences they had, they also were friends who enjoyed spending time together. So the idea of carpooling to the Bridger Valley for some separate campaigning seemed entirely reasonable to them.
In today's polarized climate, the idea of political opponents traveling together to campaign is almost unfathomable.
Actually, it was unusual even in the 1970s for candidates to do what those two did. Their continuing friendship while running against each other for political office is primarily a testament to the kind of people they were.
But I do think it shows that previous generations had a much better handle on civility, at least when it comes to politics, than we do today.
I offer this story as an example of the type of conduct being encouraged by a new statewide initiative called Civility Matters, being organized by the Wyoming Humanities Council. The Star-Tribune has joined the initiative with a commitment to publish monthly guest columns from a variety of authors encouraging civility in public discourse. The first, by Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources Director Milward Simpson, appears on today's Forum page. They're scheduled to continue through August 2011.
Civility Matters also will include statewide book and film discussions; a publication with selected readings; a summer public discussion series round the state; a community grant initiative; and a statewide tour by a national humanities scholar.
A number of organizations are involved in the initiative, which is funded in part by the state Legislature through the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Wyoming Humanities Council. Other supporters include people and groups from a variety of political stripes.
Robust debate over important issues is one of the things that make our nation and state great. But too often these days, public debate deteriorates into name-calling and demonization. I'm particularly bothered when people accuse their political foes of being unpatriotic or "hating America." Conflict resolution and compromise seem to have become something of a lost art, particularly at the national level.
While the example of my grandfather and his friend/opponent causes me to long for the days of more civil political debate, I understand enough about history to know that there never really was a "golden age" when everyone was nice to one another. Heated disagreement has been a hallmark of American politics from the start. Wyoming history is replete with examples of public disagreements that disintegrated even into violence, from the Rock Springs Chinese Massacre to the Johnson County Cattle War.
Still, history shows that our state and nation work best when political opponents put aside their partisan interests and collaborate in the best interests of society as a whole. That's much less likely to happen when civility is left out of the equation.
'Civility Matters!': Can we still compromise?
Sunday, October 24, 2010
October is National Arts and Humanities Month. In honor of the occasion I'm writing to announce that the Wyoming Humanities Council will be conducting a new initiative bringing Wyoming citizens together to focus on an important and timely topic: civility.
Much has been made of these "uncivil" times. As Americans, we are all familiar with politicians resorting to ugly personal attacks and extreme public statements, the mob chaos of political town meetings, entire TV "news" programs devoted to one-sided polemic, and here, closer to home, the uproar over Bill Ayers and extremists threatening to burn religious texts on the capitol steps. All this amorphous anger.
The fuel we seem to keep pouring onto the fire is distilled from a variety of sources: the proliferation of electronic communication leading to an increasingly polarized media, the increasing geopolitical phenomenon in which people choose to live where their political views are reinforced (what author Bill Bishop refers to as "The Clustering of Like-Minded America;") and a frustrated electorate facing the impossibility of getting anything done in the almost complete absence of compromise.
Of course, our democratic experiment has often included periods of incivility. The publication "America's Civil War" recently stated " ... if you think politics are polarizing now, try to imagine the angst in this country after Abraham Lincoln was elected president 150 years ago ..." Riots erupted, seven states voted to secede from the Union and federal property in South Carolina was confiscated and/or destroyed. Yet, though far perhaps from the depth of the divisions which resulted in our great Civil War, the word "secession" has wormed its way back into the national dialogue. Our current cultural environment does call into question our collective ability to confront the enormous issues we face.
It is not that we should disagree less. Indeed, part of our American dynamism comes from the fact that we are born and bred to argue. Our democracy draws its strength from it. The esteemed journalist Howard Fineman in his book "The Thirteen American Arguments," claims that, if anything, we don't argue enough. "The ... arguments bitterly divide us, but they also define, inspire, and ultimately unite us by bestowing legitimacy on hard fought deals ..."
The difference today seems to be civility -- what National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach refers to as the ability to "walk in another's shoes." I had the honor of meeting Mr. Leach during his visit to Wyoming last month as part of his 50-state "American Civility Tour." He puts this all very simply: "Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion."
While pondering this piece, I thought of civility in light of my family history. While governor, my grandfather Milward once wrote a quite uncivil letter to a critical constituent. Granddad dashed off his vitriolic missive and told his Chief of Staff Bob McManus to "mail the thing to that #@$&% SOB!" Bob did as he was told. Later that day, Governor Simpson came to him and asked, " ... you didn't mail that letter, did you!?" Bob said that he had. Granddad exclaimed something like "Oh God, we've got to go get it!" and they walked
(I'm sure with less than sure legal footing) to the postmaster who agreed to retrieve the letter before it left the post office.
How do we confront this issue here in our beloved, wonderful and still wild Wyoming? Inspired by Jim Leach's call to action, the Wyoming Humanities Council's "Civility Matters!" initiative will explore topics that may include "cyber-civility;" sports and civility; school bullying; national topics, such as Second Amendment rights, and energy and water issues; regional topics, such as the Rock Springs Massacre, and the World War II Heart Mountain Relocation Center; and international topics, such as the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. The variable format encourages interaction and will include online film and book discussions, summer park socials, and poetry and potluck dialogues.
Back to Fineman, our civil discourse, our arguments, " ... produced a civil war, the still-smoldering embers of racial tribalism, and pitiless economic competition; but they also produce the freest of societies, an ongoing (if imperfect) accommodation between capital and community, and a Constitution that stands as a beacon to the world even if we sometimes honor it in the breach. Arguing keeps us moving fitfully forward -- toward being worthy of the gifts God gave us."
As we celebrate National Arts and Humanities Month, I invite you to participate in these activities and be a part of this important discourse. It's the American thing to do!
Milward Simpson is director of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. The Wyoming Humanities Council recently launched Civility Matters! a multi-year initiative funded by the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources through the Wyoming Legislature. The Casper Star-Tribune is partnering with the Wyoming Humanities Council and for the next year will publish monthly opinion columns presented by the council.
Success is much more than win-loss record
Sunday, November 21, 2010
The Wyoming Humanities Council and the Casper Star-Tribune continue their partnership on the Civility Matters! statewide initiative. This month University of Wyoming's Chris Prosinski, free safety for the UW football team who is taking postgraduate courses in business, discusses civility regarding the significance of sportsmanship.
"How a man plays the game shows something of his character; how he loses shows it all." -- Tribune (Camden County, Ga).
To me, this quote epitomizes the standard in which sportsmanship is measured for individuals and carries over to everyday life. In today's society, so much of an athlete's success is determined solely by their win-loss record. Although the ultimate team goal in competitive athletics is to win, much more can be determined about an athlete and the program by the way they carry themselves through victory or defeat.
Showing sportsmanship throughout competition is much more than simply being cordial to the other team's players and coaches. Being a good sport is not measured by the number of times you help your opponent up off the playing field or by shaking hands after the game. Adrenaline and emotions often times run high during competition and it is not uncommon for individuals to act out from their normal demeanor. An athlete's actions in a competitive environment are usually more intense than in an everyday situation. These sometimes extreme outbursts or reactions are not always inappropriate within the confines of sport. However, once an athlete's actions have gone so far as to embarrass themselves, their team and school, or their family and friends, they have crossed the line.
Sportsmanship is about respecting your opponents and the game you are playing. Individuals should respect their opponents for the reason that they have also committed themselves to the same sport in which you are competing. While not all athletes or teams may display the same level of ability, they have dedicated their time to the same sport and deserve the respect for their courage to compete.
Good sportsmanship is imperative for the integrity of competition. The way an athlete carries him or herself is a reflection of their character and of the passion and respect they have for their sport. Today, many athletes often get caught up in drawing unnecessary attention to themselves through their actions, speech, or even their wardrobe. Not only do these actions sacrifice the integrity of the game they have worked so hard to compete in, they also cast a shadow on the efforts of their teammates. So often you see professional athletes excessively celebrate without recognizing their teammate's efforts that put them in the position to succeed.
Sportsmanship encompasses more than respect for your opponents and the sport you compete in; it also demonstrates respect for your teammates, fans, school, and city and state you represent. As a Wyoming native who was provided with the opportunity to play football for the University of Wyoming, I have had the honor of experiencing Wyoming fans as some of the most passionate and dedicated throughout the country. Wyoming fans have exuded an immense amount of enthusiasm and loyalty towards the University of Wyoming and its athletic programs. I believe it is the responsibility of all UW student-athletes to reciprocate this devotion by representing the fans in a positive and respectable manner.
Chris Prosinski was the 2006 Milward Simpson Male Athlete of the Year Award winner for Wyoming, and co-captain and starting safety for the UW Cowboys football team. He was recently a fourth round draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL in the 2011 draft.
The responsibility of keeping a civil tongue
Sunday, January 16, 2011
America is a conflicted and violent country. Jared Loughner's recent rampage in Tucson hardly constitutes unprecedented behavior. We've been fighting and stitching each other up since Jamestown.
George Washington, an optimistic enough soul to cross the ice-clogged Delaware River at night in a rainstorm, saw this collective fractiousness as a liability to the republic.
In his farewell address in 1797, Washington warned, "The alternative domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries, has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism."
There's a singular difference between Washington's day and ours: we've overlooked the connection between bad language and bad behavior. Sigmund Freud said that the first human who hurled an insult instead of a rock was the founder of civilization.
For that to be true, however, insults have to mean something. In 1838, Congressmen Jonathan Cilley of Maine insulted a friend of Kentucky solon William Graves; a duel ensued and Cilley died. Now, demeaning talk is the common currency of the American vocabulary. We've become inured to innuendo.
Well, sorry Sigmund, violence hides itself in the exoskeleton of hateful language. It's not axiomatic, of course. Toothless blowhards are as common as pondwater. But from John Brown's bloody raids on Kansas to Timothy McVeigh's horrific acts in Kansas City to Ted Kaczynski's mailbombs, hateful rhetoric accompanies usually precedes violence.
Demographics, technology, and fantasy complicate this connection. In 1797, the U.S. population was just over 5 million. Now it's 360 million. We talk at each other through Tweets and Facebook or listen to (or watch) the one-way rants of well-paid megaphones. Communication can be done instantly, impulsively. It took, by comparison, seven days for the news of Washington's death at Mt. Vernon in 1799 to reach New York City.
The fantasy part comes in believing that participating in a talk show (which we can turn off as soon as we've heard our own voice) qualifies as a meaningful conversation. "Follow me on Twitter," is not an encouraging prologue to a discussion that solves problems.
Americans have long bridled against amending the freedom to speak our minds. What we've forgotten is that if we won't control our individual speech, someone will try to control it for us. The phrase keeping a civil tongue in your head has less to do with manners and applies more to protecting America's ace-in-the-hole: pluralism: I may not like you (or your ideas) and you may not like me (or my ideas) but we're going to give and take on issues in order to keep a civil society.
Pluralism is the temple next to the mosque; the union hall beside the free-enterprise institute; the Planned Parenthood clinic across the street from a Catholic Church.
Pluralism rests on the ability to listen to a new idea and do so without flying into a panic. Examples of such reactions abound. In 1935, Congressmen opposed to social security predicted it would "impose a crushing burden upon industry and upon labor," and "destroy old age retirement systems set up by private industries." Remember those the grim scenarios projected during school integration: Integration is Communism, declared the good people of Pulaski County, Arkansas).
We're also uneasy as well as conflicted. Gallup polls taken over the last two years show that a record number of Americans, upwards of 90 percent, are dissatisfied (a favorite Gallup word for overall unhappiness) "with the way things are going in the U.S. at this time," the lowest ranking in 30 years.
We're unsettled because things are not going as our ideology (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) promised. Still, we forge ahead, enchanted by our own voice as we shoot down the ideas of others. We only engage in civil discussion after disaster (9-11 or the near collapse of GM) arrives at our door.
We can't control other people's speech, only our own. The opportunities to exercise a civil tongue show up everywhere: texting, tweeting, talk shows, or letters to the editor. More importantly, the venues that prove that you're interested in resolution as opposed to conquest are close to home: talking to our children about that dreaded neighbor and her barking dog or discussing the ideas of a "liberal" politician with our co-workers or showing up at town council to debate zoning.
That means bolstering our confidence that we can listen civilly, adapt, and buck ourselves out of where we are now: a polarized nation of dead-end declaratives.
Samuel Western from Sheridan is the author of Pushed off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming's Search for its Soul, and is a writer for the Economist.
Civility starts at home
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Since being asked to write this article, I have given a lot of thought to the women who helped shape my life and the lives of my siblings. We kids were a scruffy lot and never failed to present great need for socialization. While dad provided his own brand of kind guidance in the barn, mom and grandma ruled the house and fought with great valor to improve upon our social graces.
Mom and grandma governed in tandem with a firm grip, a civil tongue and a big bar of Lava soap conspicuous in both sight and size. They understood the value of deterrence long before deterrence became a familiar word.
For those who don't know about Lava soap, it's still available for tough hand cleaning jobs or as an Internet ad says, "to help those who really get their hands dirty." No mention of mouths. I can still taste it and feel the grit. I never bought any Lava soap for my own home so much for deterrence.
As a young wife and mother, I quickly assumed the role that my mom and grandma had taken so seriously civilizing a start-up family. I learned the importance of setting a tone of civility in our household at the beginning of every day. While my husband and son were absently mindful of a small needlepoint strategically placed over the breakfast bar that read, "If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!" I found that the path of least resistance, for a constructive start to every day, was for me to simply lead the charge.
Thirty-four years later I still have the job and am still learning how to do it better. In addition, I have also learned much more about how quickly communication becomes distorted and relationships affected when common courtesies within families and between individuals and organizations are not reciprocal and consistently practiced. Words matter. Courtesies matter. Ask the kid that is bullied or the diplomat that has been insulted and demeaned with thoughtless chatter beamed around the world.
I have learned that words have the potential to be more lethal than any ammunition in a military's arsenal. Words leveraged by the ever-increasing speed of technology can spread like a deadly virus and create a picture of the United States that, at best, is less than flattering and, at worst, threatens the lives of individual citizens and imperils the very future of our democracy.
Many years of experience have convinced me that civility (or lack thereof) starts in our homes and moves transparently with us to our schools, workplaces and communities. With the addition of new communication links, devices and technologies, both good and bad behaviors are now captured and transmitted to a global audience. What happens in Vegas, so to speak, no longer stays in Vegas. Connectivity is the only limiting factor in determining the size and scope of the potential audience.
The other evening I heard a talk show program where guests were discussing deterioration in civility in America. A growing culture of permissiveness and the influence of the Internet were targeted as root causes. Pardon me but sans a human being crafting the message or creating the picture there would be nothing for the Internet to supply. A permissive culture? Who is responsible for that? Without demand for such a culture there would cease to be a supply. Why is it so easy to blame things that are difficult to touch and impossible to hold accountable?
No, the root cause for deterioration in civility in America begins with a growing lack of personal responsibility for individual words and actions. While emerging opportunities to reach out and stage personal attacks anonymously through Internet forums and other venues have further fueled and intensified the delivery of profane, malicious and threatening attacks, it is the individual that must be held accountable for the message.
The New Year is still young and there will be many opportunities to make a difference in your home and community in the coming year. While I can't feed the world hungry I can do my part from my part of the world. Through my own conduct I can strive to set a good example for my family, my friends and my work colleagues. When I fail at civility I can say I'm sorry sooner rather than later. I also realize that sometimes I will need to be further humbled by saying the "I'm sorry" in public rather than in private.
The New Year is still young and there is no better time to turn up the personal civility meter than right now.
Rita Meyer served as Wyoming's state auditor from 2007-11 and was a candidate for the governor of Wyoming in 2010. She served the state and nation in the Wyoming Air National Guard for over 23 years and was promoted to colonel in 2004.
Wild West on wheels: A walking man's view
Sunday, March 27, 2011
I walk every day to and from work, about three miles round trip. It's the one good habit I have.
Half the hike is beside a railroad track and up a steep canyon where the resident fox and deer, flushed by my heavy footfalls, fan out ahead of me. The other half takes me along city streets, over a railroad bridge, and across three roads that pass for thoroughfares in my small town. This is the part where the most encounters with Wyoming wildlife occur.
Certain teenage boys, members no doubt of some secret cult, like to roll down their windows, stick their furry heads out and let loose with wild, in-my-face yells. Once, as I approached a street corner, a big truck rumbled up behind me. I looked over my shoulder just as it lurched and accelerated around me, the driver snarling at me to get out of the way of his right-turn. Another time, a drunk attempting a U-turn reared her pick-up onto the sidewalk in front of me and then reviled me for being in her way. One summer night, I was pelted in the chest with a water balloon, an assault that made me spin and raise my fist and shout out words that were, let's just say, uncivil.
Walking women I know report a whole different kind of attention from motorized mouths, and a separate set of strategies to assure their safety and peace of mind: enlisting guard dogs, varying their routes, taking assertiveness training.
The antics of these fools-on-wheels make me think longingly of that bastion of civility, the Bay Area, where motorists are so well-behaved that all you have to do is glance at a crosswalk and they will screech to a halt and wait for you to step off the curb. Out there, police even stage sting operations to drive the point home. A friend reports getting a hefty ticket because she coasted through a crosswalk, at the edge of which a woman was standing with a baby carriage. There wasn't even a baby inside!
Bay Area civility would never fly here, where crosswalks are few and far between and snowed under half the year, and where pedestrians are a rare enough sight that even sane motorists sometimes don't know how to behave. Wyoming statutes, while they do encourage drivers to "exercise due care," seem to put the burden of survival on the walker. Except in crosswalks, "Every pedestrian ... shall yield the right of way," they dictate, and "No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb." That sounds reasonable enough, but the fact is that every time I step into the uncertain street it feels like a "sudden" event.
Some motorists treat walkers as if we were no different from a two-ton pickup. They calculate our speed and measure it against their own, and make their moves with very little margin for error. Thus, a car turning ahead of me might flash by a foot or two from my toes, and another, on a straightaway, might accelerate as I cross in front, so that I feel its tires nipping at my heels. It doesn't occur to the drivers that I am erratic. I might suddenly break into a jog, or slow down to navigate a patch of ice, or even fall. Cars never "fall." It is not a safe bet that a motorist will even see me especially the ones on cell phones, who are seeing something entirely different from what's outside their windshields.
Deluded no doubt by too much oxygen to the brain, I sometimes fancy myself to be one who has been called upon to train the motorized masses in matters of civility. I raise my hand in a gesture of benediction for those who stop, at a proper distance, to let me by. I give the palms-up sign and the evil eye to those who surge past. In my most foolhardy moments, I step into the street like Moses into the Red Sea, full of faith that civic virtues will prevail and the traffic tides will cease. And so far they have. Given that there's just not that many of us out here, it actually seems possible that, in due time, the entire populace will be trained.
But the truth, I am happy to report, is that the larger share of us need no training in the basic civil behavior of the street. We just need to spread the word to those of us who do.
Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, where he teaches at Western Wyoming Community College.
The practice of civility
Sunday, April 24, 2011
When I worked with children in an elementary school, I showed them a series of pictures depicting two children. For each picture, I told a story about what the children were disagreeing about. When I asked which child in the picture was right and why, the first graders always said that there was one right answer. Fifth graders, on the other hand, thought that differences in life experience could lead children to have different answers and that some things can legitimately be a matter of opinion. In the calm of an interview session, fifth graders could honor multiple points of view.
Remembering this during an argument with a friend was harder for the children. The difficulty we humans have sometimes in applying our knowledge led me to ask, what if we think of civility as something we can practice?
Practice is both an activity and a commitment. As an activity, I can practice changing my automatic negative mental evaluation of someone. I can practice tempering the impatience with another person's political opinion that leads me to want to interrupt them and re-state my opinion a little louder. Even if I have a picture about what civil behavior should look like, I have to actively practice leading my own thoughts, feelings, and behavior toward that picture.
But just like the fifth graders who lost track of multiple perspectives in the heat of an argument, I find that re-directing my thought in the course of a busy day isn't easy. I need a commitment to a practice of civility. Just as I may commit to having an exercise practice or a practice of prayer, I can commit to a daily practice of recognizing that as a human being my nervous system is vulnerable to stress, anger, and anxiety and that my interactions will be more healthy if I can make room among all my reactions for consideration of the experiences of other persons involved.
The practice of civility helps us to respect ourselves while respecting others. I saw this in action when I took my elderly aunt to buy stockings in a department store. She moved slowly with a walker. She visited every counter. She examined every type of stocking offered. By the time we got to the cash register, I was already feeling bored, worried about getting back in time for a meeting, hungry, and tired of standing. That was when my aunt started to look for her credit card. My aunt, totally focused on her goal, examined a small zippered pouch suspended in the middle of the purse. No credit card there. I felt a line forming behind us.
Then my aunt took out a leather wallet. She had to carefully put the purse down to look through the wallet. The line shifted weight from one foot to another and people peered around to see what was going on. My aunt stuck her finger into the various folds in the wallet. No credit card. My aunt started to dig deeper into the purse. As the line muttered and tapped its feet, I became embarrassed.
The line and I were indulging in our immediate reactions and the outcome seemed inevitable: blood pressures rising and upset stomachs accompanied by rude comments by the crowd and impatient behavior by me.
The sales person who had been waiting at the cash register, however, turned out to have a practice of civility. She slowly raised her arms so that her hands hovered over my aunt, still bent at the task. And holding her arms in this way she looked out at the line, saying, "This ... (pause) ... is a treasure. This is a treasure we are blessed to have with us."
The muttering line nodded and settled. I saw my aunt anew and welcomed tenderness into my heart.
Because she had a practice of civility, this saleswoman was able to create a public space for the rest of us to begin to practice our own civility by leading our fatigued and pressured selves toward some internal calm within which we could remember that we were part of a human community and that one of our elders was among us.
Susan Hill is from Crowheart and taught psychology at Wind River Tribal College for two and a half years. Before moving to Wyoming she served as an associate director of the Mental Health Program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
When patience prevails, anything is possible
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Yesterday, as I sat in the bleachers of the local gymnasium and watched my youngest child leave the nest, I was struck by constancy of message from the graduation speakers. There were the requisite allusions to learning and growing, but the essence of civility and open-mindedness was nuanced in every speech. It seemed as if parents, students, teachers and administrators all took a day away from the bustle of modern society and let out a long, relaxed breath.
Not one cell phone rang. Texting was on holiday. Several hundred people sat quietly for more than an hour. And, every single one of them lived. Smiles, handshakes, and hugs were rampant. Old rivals embraced one another; wounds seemed to heal instantly. Laughter and barbecue smoke rose from back yards, and in our own home, three people misplaced cell phones, because they really didn't need them that much at the time.
So it goes in times of celebration. We seem to collectively focus on positives, and share feelings easily. We let go of unimportant things, drop our guards and enjoy one another. There are grand tales of failure, mischief and success and, in the end, a sense of newness and hope.
Oddly enough, many walk away from those feelings into a work world where all the magic is stripped clean, like the bones of a winter-killed elk. In many ways, that is the model we are taught to build upon, some sort of winner-takes-all logic that leads to confrontation, litigation, and distrust. This model of behavior is perhaps most egregious in the natural resource world, where it seems at times that no one could have anything in common.
In 20 years of group facilitation, I have found incredible strength in the power of people to find creative solutions to the most complex of issues. Local people can accomplish nearly anything, and many things at once, when civility and patience prevail. The keys to success are, as is usually the case, incredibly simple. Sometimes, the hardest part is getting to the beginning.
Our greatest power lies in the simple act of asking questions. Positions and opinions are always rooted in some reality, and by seeking to really understand what those realities are, our ability to address the needs of others is heightened exponentially. But, learning is a much more complex art than simply getting information. The real value lies in capably hearing and internalizing the answers, of truly putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else. When we can make the case for an adversary, we approach the "radical center" of the real world.
While asking questions has value, the way in which we answer those questions is equally important. Most of the time, our answers are cloaked in facts and figures, statistical analysis, and philosophical dogma. It may take dozens of approaches to get answers that are truly grounded in fact. It may take even more to find those values that we all share.
On one occasion where rancor was at a crescendo, particularly between two factions, both parties were asked to sit on a windswept ridge and write or draw a description of what they would like to see from that ridge in 50 years. The descriptions were not mutually exclusive they were virtually identical.
From that simple act, we were able to forge a language that was meaningful to all. Words, after all, can be our worst enemy.
Civility is best practiced face to face, as the impersonal tone of email has taught us all. There is a need for human contact, a need to hear vocal inflection, to read body language. When it comes to natural resources, we must be able to see the landscape, to feel the wind in our hair and the sun on our back. There is a huge need to sense both joy and pain in those with whom we seek to work. Emotions often define the boundaries where magic lives.
Finally, we must understand that most of the challenges we face today did not appear overnight. A century of fire suppression, for example, will not be erased in a few years. Solutions that come from swift action are usually lacking. At the same time, we should be cognizant of the reality that in our modern world, we will nearly always be seeking some middle ground, and in doing so, all will lose and all will gain. As such, equity and fairness must be a common goal.
My youngest child will sleep long into the afternoon. She spent all night with people she may never see again, and that reality is sobering. May she wake with a sense of loss for the times she could have been more tolerant, and a sense of joy for what she can do to change that today. Might we all.
During the summer a traveling civility tent, Civility Matters! Government, God, Google & Guns, will provide civility activities at summer festivals and gatherings throughout Wyoming. Participate in the Civility Matters! traveling tent on June 8 at the Wyoming Association of Municipalities meeting in Sheridan, and on June 12 at Culturefest in Worland.For more information about Civility Matters! visit www.uwyo.edu/humanities.
Bob Budd is executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Fund. Formerly he was executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and president of the international Society for Range Management. He is also a former board member of the Wyoming Humanities Council.
Potty all the time
Sunday, June 26, 2011
I had an experience a few weeks ago I haven't been able to shake. My first- grader and I were in a local salon getting a much-needed trim. When we arrived, each of the haircut stalls were occupied by young men in their early twenties. They all seemed to know each other and were enjoying a loud cross-stall conversation. They were also intimately acquainted with the f-word which was uttered every other word.
When it was our turn for a haircut, as I passed them by, I quietly suggested that perhaps they might want to tone down their language in front of my 7-year-old.
Then, a funny thing happened. They were rendered literally mute. "Were they even aware of their foulmouths?" I thought, "Or are they incapable of forming a sentence without using the f-word?" Either answer is disheartening.
Foul language has embedded itself in our daily lives. An elegant lady I know told me that her warehouse stocking job took a turn for the worse last year when management hired a profanity-fueled supervisor. I shudder to think of this classy grandmother unwittingly steeped in the mucky culture of the profane.
Still another employer I know recently expressed his surprise when, during the interview, the top candidate let fly with such an arsenal of naughty words that the interview team nearly choked on their stack of highly qualified resumes. Somewhere along the way, our standards of conversation fell in the toilet.
Such examples reflect a society completely unaware of the power of words and its impact on others. As I reflected more, it occurred to me that my flight from foul-mouthers has deeply influenced the way we spend our family time. A profanity-laced crowd at a sporting event can quickly overshadow the fun of attending a game. Gone are the days of watching Sunday afternoon football with our boys while the networks sluggishly bleep the spewing of NFL players.
There's a time and place for everything. The problem is that the potty-all-the-time attitude seems to be expanding into all zones, from the oil patch to the ice cream parlor. There no longer exists a family swear-free zone. Not at Walmart. Not at Putt-Putt.
Words matter. They sting. They impress. They linger. And they singe a child's ear in a way no parent can erase. Words set both the tone and the standard for acceptable conversation. We clearly miss this point on a national level (while listening to himself curse, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich acknowledged his language "makes you wince." He then apologized without irony for being an "eff-ing jerk"), and we miss it on the most local of levels.
This isn't an issue of free speech. As Americans we enjoy the right to express any and every thing that comes to our minds and we often do. Expression is a joyful part of the human experience. As stewards of that experience, though, we should be more thoughtful in how we share our conversations. What would happen if we cleansed our tongues, cut the chaff and dumped the bad words?
It's a matter of civility and of respect. Our laissez-faire approach to language masks a deeper issue of our growing insensitivity to other people's standards of dialogue. What may be appropriate in one forum may not be appropriate in others. A civilized society acknowledges the right of freedom of expression. A respectful society allows us the opportunity to choose for ourselves.
To that end, the Wyoming Humanities Council is sponsoring Civility Matters!, a series of statewide forums that creatively engage the public in considering the meaning of civility. I welcome and encourage this effort and hope the end result will be a heightened awareness of the effect of our words on others.
I don't want potty-mouthers to inform my children's growing vocabulary. As a parent, I own the right to introduce vocabulary to my children. I teach my children that, contrary to the old saying, words do hurt. I challenge my kids to find better, cleverer ways to express our frustrations, our highs and our lows. I challenge our community to similarly set a higher, more thoughtful standard of dialogue, from the board room to the checkout line.
This challenge to do some verbal housecleaning isn't just child's play. It applies to everyone. Let's positively influence our peers. Let's set the tone for the nation to follow. Let's soap up our mouths. Next time you travel outside your castle, mind your tongue, be respectful, and delete the trash talk.
You never know who is listening.
Susan Stubson is a pianist, writer, and an attorney at Brown, Drew & Massey, LLP. She has served on the Wyoming Arts Council for the past six years and is currently a board member with the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund. She and her husband, Tim, have two boys and live in Casper.
Civility matters; words matter
Sunday, July 31, 2011
In 1969 I sent a sharply worded letter to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. I criticized a program he had initiated to conduct surveillance on college students protesting the war in Vietnam and, for good measure, told him what I thought of him as a person. I didn't think much of him as a person.
In the late 1990s I wrote to the FBI to get a copy of whatever file they had that included information about me. The file was embarrassingly small but did include the 1969 letter. Someone had written a single word in the margin: "ignore." Apparently J. Edgar Hoover never read my letter.
In the years since 1969 I have written hundreds of letters to appointed or elected public officials. Over the years my letters have changed. My understanding of and appreciation for public officials, even those with whom I disagree, have changed. And I have a more nuanced conception of how citizen participation can actually be effective in a democracy.
This is not to say that I don't get angry about some policy decisions and angry at the office holders who make them. There is clearly room for anger and disappointment in the world of public policy.
I don't think that is a bad thing. Public policies affect our lives and livelihoods, challenge or support our notions about how the world should work, and inspire confidence or despair about the future we are leaving to subsequent generations. All of those things should ignite passion in people who care about them, and that passion is absolutely necessary for our democracy to work.
But I have come to understand there is a way to put that passion to use without resorting to the inflamed rhetoric of the outraged.
The more I got involved in issues of public policy the more I began meeting and understanding people serving in public office. I recall meeting with Buddy Roemer, then U.S. Congressional Representative for northern Louisiana, to talk about U.S. involvement in El Salvador. Rep. Roemer had been very supportive of the policy and was meeting with a group of us who were not.
We went in expecting a tussle, but instead we met for over an hour with a thoughtful, deliberate man who listened to our views and cogently presented his own. Over time his position on El Salvador came closer to ours, and he was in a position to act on it.
I have subsequently had many friends, and now relatives, who have entered the political arena and I find that nearly all of them wrestle earnestly with the issues before them and genuinely want to make decisions that promote the common good. Even when those decisions are 180 degrees from what I envision as the common good, I remind myself that they have accepted the responsibility of making those decisions; I have not.
But I have now accepted the responsibility of providing public officials with solid reasoning, peer-reviewed empirical evidence where appropriate, and a well-thought-out opposing point of view. I have abandoned the tack of heaping opprobrium on the heads of political figures with whom I disagree because they do not deserve it ... nor is it effective. I no longer want to be ignored.
This is not to say that conversations about public policy with public figures can't generate a little heat. Those of us who actively work to have an impact on public policy, as citizens or public officials, work in this arena because we think we can make a difference, and that can result in lively exchanges. But they need not be ugly.
So I have worked on a new formula for communicating with public officials. I never use an inflammatory word when a descriptive word will suffice. I don't personalize issues: no one person should bear responsibility for the outcome, good or bad, of a public policy decision.
My correspondence with public officials is much shorter these days and I always suggest a course of action rather than merely comment on a policy. I use inclusive pronouns "we" rather than "you" and try to relate the issue du jour to a real life in the public official's territory.
And I try to help provide "cover" for public officials who may be moving toward my point of view but who have a constituency they need to please on the other side. Sometimes there is power in a perfectly turned phrase that allows a public official to bend the conversation ever so subtly. And sometimes that is all it takes.
Dave Throgmorton is executive director of the Carbon County Higher Education Center in Riverton. A Wyoming native, he worked as a higher education administrator in Illinois, Iowa and California before returning to Wyoming in 2007 after 30 years out of the state.
Civility matters: Don't shut down the conversation
Sunday, September 11, 2011
I drove across Wyoming on Interstate 80 last weekend, through construction sites and packs of semis. I saw drivers move over to let merging traffic onto the road. I saw drivers fall back as the vehicle in the right hand lane signaled a lane change. I saw no accidents and few speeders. I-80 is a place where civility matters and people live as a result.
Incivility doesn't always have fatal results, but it can produce a kind of death. Do you want to be heeded; do you want your ideas to have impact? I confess to responding better to people who are civil than to people who aren't. The person who drops a verbal bomb and runs is someone wanting to score points, not solve a problem.
I work in a public library, providing services to people of all ages and conditions, with varying skills and opinions. People with complaints or concerns come to me. We want to provide good service, and people have to tell us about problems before we can fix them. And not anonymously.
But anonymous comments aren't civil. Generally they are negative. They can be filled incorrectly spelled dirty words. They can be extremely short, like "This place sucks, a phrase which achieves little that's productive. There's no one to respond to, no one to ask for more information, no way to solve the problem, whatever it may be. Someone, years ago, thought that Curious George (a character from the children's book of the same name) had been lynched in the children's room. What kind of people were we to expose innocent children to such a sight, asked the anonymous writer. The display was incomplete; George was to hang from a vine promoting summer reading. The jungle leaves were added and the problem solved before the letter arrived. But there was no one to explain that to.
People can complain about specific books in anonymous ways too: There is the editor who corrects grammar or notes the change in the color of the character's eyes from one page to another. And here's a reader comment inked in our copy of "Ship of Fools": "This book is to long. " An elected official told me she ignored anonymous letters: "If they can't put their names, why should I pay any attention?" But the human impulse is to want to respond and to be frustrated at not being able to. And attacks are upsetting.
Attacks can kill conversation. Mudslinging doesn't shed light; it may provide a moment of one-upmanship, but the issue isn't addressed. In a group that loves argument and knows each other well a bomb may start a good discussion. But not always. Think of a book group when not everyone admired or enjoyed the book. Readers can listen to the comments or others, hear what supporters have to say and end with a more complete understanding and appreciation for the work without liking it any more. But listening increases understanding. Too abrupt a negative judgment on the book or the people who liked it short circuit that process.
Angry people are often not civil. They may write or come in person. They can be upset about a book, policy or bill. Sometimes they make an angry comment "This is ridiculous" and stalk out. Often they are not familiar faces, so we have no names again and can do nothing. It's the people who make their case, listen, respond, and work towards a conclusion that are most successful in their complaints. They haven't shut down conversation.
As I have been working on this piece, I've been struggling with my knowledge that I'm not civil all the time, that context matters a great deal. Who is my audience? Why am I speaking? What is my goal? At home or with friends I have called people names to vent anger or to bond with people of similar opinions. But that's in private for emotional reasons. In public to solve problems, influence opinion and work towards a good conclusion, civility matters.
The Wyoming Humanities Council's year-long Civility Matters! program is winding down. There's still time for Civility Rumination Roulette a game for anyone with Internet access. Think about how you and your family and friends can participate by visiting www.uwyo.edu/humanities.
Susan Simpson is director of the Albany County Library. In 2005, she received the New York Times Librarian Award.http://trib.com/opinion/columns/article_2988ba30-4a33-53a4-882c-60d66f4ee7cb.html#ixzz1XmAxkaUt