The long-accepted stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As in grief, there are similar stages through which one must pass to acquire wisdom and learning.
As humans, we all acquire perceptual data through our senses. We only process this into information by aggregating and contextualizing it. Knowledge comes only when that information is tested against other sources of information and fairly assessed. We graduate to wisdom when we measure our acquired knowledge against our life experience and against the lives of others we learn about through reading or friendships.
If these paths eventually lead us to acceptance and wisdom about life’s complexities, might they also apply to the current political standoffs and the demise of political debate and compromise?
Perhaps there’s a similar pathway to civil discourse beginning with the core elements of learning: intellectual humility – that is knowing how little, in fact, we know – curiosity, the ability to listen respectfully and process, and, finally, the courage to speak.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand just how little I really know. As to curiosity, I believe children are born curious and, nourished properly, they remain so for life. The capacity to pay attention to others is natural in children raised in healthy families and communities, and the courage to speak an informed truth with kindness and respect becomes the endgame.
Have we lost this in America? I don’t believe we have. I see examples every day among friends, talking with strangers, and from responsible media organizations. But leaders must be held accountable for modelling civil discourse rather than debasing it in pursuit of their own self-serving agenda.
The most destructive weapon against civil discourse lies in a leader’s effort to generate irrational fear. All the great autocrats have done this – fear of minorities, immigrants, women, the poor, intellectuals, the mentally handicapped, the “other.” A fearful citizenry stops reasoning. Discourse turns to diatribe and that’s where courage comes in.
By way of example, without notice or comment, The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) recently deleted its century-old introductory phrase… “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants…” and added, “protecting Americans” and “securing the homeland.” From whom? Refugees, asylum seekers, those seeking freedom and opportunity as our grandparents did?
To quote the poet Dylan Thomas, the time has come to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”