Editor's note: This commentary by Brigham Young University professor Brett Scharffs is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.
This week, in an effort to draw attention to his upcoming comedy show, comedian David Cross tweeted out a picture that appeared to mock Latter-day Saint temple garments. When members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed discomfort at his provocation, he seemed to revel in their unease.
Do you ever feel — I know I do — that we live in an era characterized by incivility? Do you ever feel tempted — especially on Facebook or worse yet, Twitter — to return incivility with incivility?
Even as we live in an internet era in which responding to offense with offense is common, there are reasons to embrace a better way; a way exemplified by Washington, Lincoln, as well as online Latter-day Saint missionaries.
It's not just irreverent comedians like David Cross who cross lines of incivility. By any reasonable measure, our current president is often bombastic and specializes in labeling opponents. His opponents, in turn, style themselves “the resistance,” adopting mindsets that treat every fire as warranting five alarms. They too deploy epithets and vulgarities.
But perhaps we need to take a collective deep breath.
Even though social media has the capacity to turn up the volume on controversies, transforming public discourse, ample evidence demonstrates that incivility in American public life is hardly new, or insurmountable.
The presidential election contest between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was noteworthy for its personal acrimony, including accusations by Adams’ supporters that Jefferson was an atheist, a weakling, a libertine and a coward. Meanwhile, Jefferson’s supporters denounced President Adams as having “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” But as long as there have been centrifugal forces of incivility that pull us apart as citizens, there have been centripetal forces of civility that have urged us to draw together in a civil center.
For example, at the age of 14, a young George Washington wrote down 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” which he translated from a French book of maxims. The first maxim states, “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”
President Abraham Lincoln saw the country through its most difficult and divisive ordeal. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he insisted at the outset of the Civil War, "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." Lincoln’s heartfelt plea to the “better angels of our nature” rings all the more poignant four years later, at a time when an estimated 750,000 Americans had lost their lives in battle.
As Lincoln and Washtington understood, respect for others and respect for self are connected. It may be that a comedian's contemptuous disregard for what Latter-day Saints hold sacred reflects not just a lack of respect for others but a lack of self-respect as well.
Recently, in an effort to understand how we might inculcate habits of responding with civility to those who are uncivil, I’ve learned from the experience of young Latter-day Saint volunteers who serve as “online missionaries” at the Missionary Training Center here in Provo. We have invited several companionships to our home for dinner to talk about their experience in the MTC. Most of these young men and women have significant physical disabilities that prevent them from serving missions where being ambulatory is important. Their job is to respond to telephone calls and internet inquiries about the church.
By their estimate, more than half of those who call or start an online chat are hostile. Think about it, these are not people being contacted by missionaries, but people who are initiating conversations. Many call to attack the missionaries, to argue points of doctrine or to denounce the church for various doctrinal or historical practices. Many are argumentative, sarcastic or degrading.
For example, when a Latter-day Saint church leader passed, there was a wave of calls from people with crude and vulgar denunciations, including confident assertions that this leader was burning in hell. Others call claiming to be Jesus, Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. Others call to mock the temple and its sacred ordinances. Some claim to be mystics, sorcerers or magicians. Some are a little funny, demanding to know whether they are going to “spirit prison” for drinking a cup of coffee. One regular, David from Australia, calls to flirt with the sister missionaries.
My question for these missionaries was, how do you remain civil in the face of a constant barrage of incivility? Their answers have been instructive.
First and most importantly, they emphasize that they are acting as representatives of our Savior Jesus Christ, and so it isn’t about them. They try hard to not take the animosity and sarcasm personally. They try to remember that the person they are chatting with is a child of God, created in his image. “We try to treat them as Heavenly Father would want them to be treated,” one explained. The key here is humility.
Second, they observe that if people are angry, one doesn't really know what they are angry about. They try to listen, to really listen, and understand where people are coming from — what, really, is their concern? The surface reason is often quite different from what is going on below.
Third, they often share scriptures or testimony. They try to speak truth as they understand it. They try to bring the discussion back to basic doctrines and concepts, such as the Restoration, the Book of Mormon, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ. As one young elder put it, “We always try to avoid being too speculative and abstract.”
Fourth, they work hard to prepare themselves for frequent questions, engaging in personal study, district study and discussions. “Sometimes you will just disagree, and you can do so politely,” one explained. “There are often areas of common ground, even with people who disagree on a lot.”
Fifth, they try to respond in the manner they want to respond, not in the manner that others are treating them. “You try not to stoop to their level. Remember your purpose (to be a representative of Jesus Christ) and try to stick to that purpose.” Sometimes, they note, there will be a marked shift in tone; someone who begins as sarcastic or hostile may become more genuine and sincere in their inquiry.
Sixth, if someone is calling just to try to tear them down or waste their time, they will politely end the conversation and hang up. “If you don’t know the answer, admit it, and try to find someone who does. If someone is rattling your composure, take a break, say a prayer or go on a walk.”
Finally, the answer is love. This is not to say it is easy; being loving is hard. As one missionary put it, “The Savior could be direct, and sometimes even blunt. But he always acted with love.”24 comments on this story
Christians are expected to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that love is the most powerful force in the universe — stronger than enmity and indifference — and that in the end it will prevail. To conclude with a snippet of rock-and-roll wisdom from the band U2: “Love is bigger than anything in its way.”
In the end, civility is not a stable, steady state of affairs; it is an ongoing struggle, within our culture, and within each of us. It is in the struggle against incivility, in the effort to vindicate the better angels of our individual and collective nature, in the effort to act with malice toward none and with charity for all, that the shape, meaning and contours of civility will be defined anew for our time and place.