NOTE: This is my latest observation on cultural life in America. It is in severe decline. It is primarily centered around the decline in grace, civility, and humility. Enjoy. As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/
Lately, I have come to the conclusion that life in America is becoming much like a cat we once owned named Mr. Earl that was always independent but would allow polite interaction with him. As he got older, he started to be absent for more of each day until, finally, he didn't come home at all. We looked everywhere and posted signs/photos on telephone poles, but no cat. Six months later, I was walking in the woods near our house, and there he was, perched on a tree limb, but ran away as soon as I approached him. I kept looking, and one day I found him again; this time I had brought food that he liked and put it on the ground nearby. He approached it, but when I moved forward toward him, he snarled and hissed at me like a wild animal. I backed off and realized he had gone feral, so I left him alone after that.
U.S. Grant & Robert E. Lee
In recent months I have read the complete biographies of Ulysses Simpson Grant and Robert E. Lee. These two men fascinate me as they shared three character traits that are noticeably absent from the current dialogue, be it political, social, or cultural in nature. These traits are grace, civility, and humility, and they exemplified these traits constantly in their behavior toward one another as they threw vast armies against each other in the final year of the American Civil War, and all the way to the end at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865.
Now, I realize that the Civil War still remains as the bloodiest conflict in American History, with over 750,000 people from both sides killed in action over a four year period, so how do grace, civility, and humility equate to that shocking death figure. Simple. Even as both commanding generals were firmly committed to winning for their respective sides as the North or the South, the way they conducted themselves during and at the end are notable in that they respected one another for their beliefs, although widely differing, still allowed them to call truces after battles to collect the wounded and the dead.
The ultimate personification of their behavior came on the morning of April 9, 1865, when Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was finally defeated at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse by the Union Army of the Potomac. Lee and Grant met that afternoon at the Courthouse to formalize the surrender. Grant surprised Lee and most everyone else (except Abraham Lincoln) when he accepted Lee's surrender with the provisions that he and his men could walk away with all of their possessions, including their horses, but minus their weapons!
Even after the war was over and Grant was named Commander of all Union Armies, he resisted any efforts to prosecute Lee and any of his commanders and men for treason over the secession of the south from the north in 1861. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson formalized it all by pardoning all involved in the creation of the Civil War, including the President of the Confederate nation, Jefferson Davis.
Fast Forward to 2018
I believe that US Grant and Robert E. Lee would both be rolling over in their graves right now if they could get a quick peek at the world today. I also believe we are at a tipping point in America where we have bid goodbye to grace, civility, and humility, possibly forever. The majority of our political leaders do not exemplify nor do they personify by their daily behavior any of the values we once cherished and held dear to our core.
Aside from the popularity in the decline in critical thinking and the growth of emotion-based thinking; ergo, ideology, as evidenced by all of the media engaged in news reporting (watch this short clip -https://youtu.be/tmaKl0Zm2c4) we seem to have adopted a bias toward discussion and debate as a zero-sum game where, if one side wins, the other side has to lose just as much as the other has to win!
How Do We Fix This?
I like to talk to people from various points of view, in order to keep my own perspective sound; in fact, I keep in mind a phrase from Karl Weick, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at the University of Michigan, as I head into discussions; "Speak as is if you're right; listen as if you're wrong."
- How do you speak as if you are right? Your message should be simple, clear and direct with sufficient courage to act on what you know.
- How do you listen as if you are wrong? Generally, with humility and some reasonable doubt about what you know (after all, there might be more to know…). This quote from Scott Card sums up the human condition nicely; “This is how humans are: we question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.”
So, How Do You Have a Serious Discussion?
An excellent article appeared in The Atlantic just two days ago by Eric Liu, former speech writer for Bill Clinton. He maintains that there are "Five Features of a Better Argument," which I interpret to encompass any serious discussion. He believes that “we don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones” through his work for the Better Arguments Project, which strives to host more constructive civic exchanges all around the United States. He has developed a framework for this; among its central tenets, are:
- Take Winning Off the Table: Rather than seeking victory, the goal should be truth-seeking, with reinstitution of civility in service of achieving it. Participants are charged with arguing to understand better.
- Prioritize Relationships and Listen Passionately: As one audience member put it, the most constructive and rewarding arguments they’ve ever had involved people with whom maintaining a good relationship afterward was a high priority—an impetus for speaking and listening carefully.
- Pay Attention to Context: “One aspect of this concerns history,” Liu said. “Every fight we have today, about immigration, about taxes, about the minimum wage, is a recapitulation of one of those core American arguments—about liberty versus equality, about central government versus local control, or individual responsibility versus collective responsibility—and the history of civic debates in this country has something to teach us about how we can make our way through this conversations today. A second element is about emotion. If someone comes at you in an angry way, you have to adjust how you’re going to come back at them. And you have a choice about whether you’re going to mirror and double down or if you’re going to be the one to say, I’m gonna be the grown-up here, and I’m going to deescalate—being emotionally intelligent about the patterns that we fall into.”
- Embrace Vulnerability: “Every one of us can relate to the feeling, ‘I didn’t start this, I’m not going to extend the olive branch.’ Extend the olive branch,” Liu said.
- Be Open: “You cannot possibly change another person’s mind,” Liu said, “if you’re not willing to have your own mind changed. You may be able to rack up debater’s points. But you won’t change their mind if they sense you aren’t willing to have your mind changed. It’s a matter of mindset but also ‘heart-set.’”
How Much has the United States Changed Since 1865? If I could have both U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in front of me now as I outlined Mr. Liu's five excellent points, they would most likely ask me in the vernacular of today's speech with, "What's New About That?"