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The Adventure of Civility: Four Encouragements From ‘On Being’ Host Krista Tippett

Oklahoma native and public radio’s On Being host Krista Tippett started her Civil Conversations Project to approach the questions we don’t know how to ask each other. Through a series of podcasts and online resources, she’s working to create hospitable spaces in communities and families to discuss issues like race, religion, and abortion in ways that go deeper than talking points and labels.

She spoke about her “adventure of civility” April 8 at Mayflower Congregational UCC church in Oklahoma City, and offered four encouragements from her life’s work of conversation.

Words Matter

Tippett says words shape how people understand themselves, move through the world, and treat others. During the 1960s, when the country experienced genuine diversity for the first time, a civic virtue often brought up to understand the Civil Rights Movement was “tolerance.”

“Tolerance connotes allowing, enduring, indulging. In a medical context, tolerance is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment,” Tippett says. “Tolerance never asked us to engage, much less to care about the stranger. Tolerance doesn't even invite us to understand, to be curious, to open, to be moved or surprised by each other.”

Rediscover Questions As Civic Tools

American public discourse revolves around trading in either competing answers, or questions that are meant to be used as a tool or a weapon. During a Lilly Endowment event about the future of Christianity, Tippett says a guest told her wrong questions lead to wrong answers, which leads to simplistic conclusions and meaningless arguments.

“We can formulate questions that draw forth honesty and dignity and revelation in the best sense of the word,” Tippett says. “There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question. Qith the most intractable issues, it is actually possible to start those with a different question and not trod the same old ground and not end up in the same dead end place.”

Realistically Honor The Difficulty Of Being Human

Tippett says good conversation can’t come without the courage to be vulnerable in front of those with whom you passionately disagree, but you can’t ask someone to be vulnerable without making them feel safe first.

Philsoopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has studied how foot-binding ended in China, how slavery ended in the British empire, and how dueling ended as a way for otherwise-honorable gentlemen to settle differences.

“What he found is that change comes about quietly by way of what he calls conversation but in the old-fashioned sense,” Tippett says “And that is conversation defined as simple association, habits of coexistence, seeking familiarity around mundane human qualities of who we are.”

Appiah writes:

The way to set moral change in motion is not to go for the jugular, or even in the first instance to go for dialogue, it's not to go straight for the things that divide you. It's all right to talk about sports and talk about the weather and talk about your children to make a human connection. If you have that background of relationship between individuals and communities that is in that sense conversational, then when you have to talk about the things that do divide you, you have a platform. You can begin with the assumption that you like and respect each other even though you don't agree about everything.

Develop Eyes To See And Ears To Hear

Tippett draws on the biblical injunction from Proverbs of having eyes to see and ears to hear as a critical discipline for the 21st century.

“So much information is coming to us from so many different directions, and what is failing drives the news,” Tippett says. “This is not just about seeing what is new. It’s also about becoming attentive to the wisom of elders in our midst, to people who have lived how social change happens below the radar.”

The late African-American icon Vincent Harding told Tippett the Civil Rights Movement was about more than earning political rights, it was about creating a beloved community form beginning to end, using vivid language and asking world-changing questions.

“I was talking to Vincent Harding about what wisdom can you impart from the life you've lived from this vast social change that you took part in for us, at this moment in our civic life, in our political life, in our democracy, and this is what he said:

For me, the question of democracy also opens up the question of what does it mean to be truly human. Democracy is simply another way of speaking about that question. Religion is another way of speaking about that question. What is our purpose in this world? And is that purpose related to our responsibilities to each other and to the world itself? All of that seems to me to be a variety of languages getting at the same reality. And it seems to me that we need again to recognize that to develop the best humanity, the best spirit, the best community, there needs to be disciplined, practices of exploring. How do you do that? How do we work together? How do we talk together in ways that will open up our best capacities and our best gifts?"

That's a different way to talk about what civil conversation is about. And then he finished by saying:

My own feeling is I try to share again and again, is that when it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious democratic society, we are still a developing nation. We've only been thinking about this for about half a century. But my own deep, deep conviction is that the knowledge, like all knowledge, is available to us if we seek it.

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