Our Toxic Civil Discourse


A Love/Hate Relationship: What Can Be Done?

We complain about the toxic level of our public discourse even as we practice and indulge it. We genuinely want that toxicity to go away, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves from promoting it. We are, it seems, both habitual perps and frustrated victims, advocates for civility in our public conversations while, at the same time, unapologetic advocates for standing up for what we believe and for passionately “calling-it-like-it-is” in language of our choosing. I have been thinking about this lately and have become uncomfortably aware that, if I don’t at least own up to my personal duplicity, my hypocrisy, I ought, in good conscience, not complain; I’m not totally without principle. I can’t have it both ways; at least, I shouldn’t.

No longer willing to turn a blind eye to my moral dishonesty by shuttling between these two positions, and chagrined by my naively waiting for someone to come and fix the problem, I’ve begun pondering this conundrum. I have some thoughts and insights I’d like to share, starting with the observation and experience that life consists of speed-bumps wherein we are continuously finding ourselves caught in binds that force us to choose between competing principles we value and having to then live with the consequences of those choices. These binds can be between principles that are petty and personal, (e.g. Do I park illegally to catch the end of my granddaughter’s soccer game, or obey the law and disappoint my granddaughter?) They can be personal and consequential. (e.g. Do I look the other way at the malfeasance of my boss to ensure my paycheck that will send my children to college, or do I risk the latter for the sake of an abstract notion, justice?) These binds are often communal (e.g. Do I shout down and silence that public speaker spewing lies and hatred, or do I support his right to free-speech and do nothing as he befouls the spirit and decency of my community?) Finally, they can be national and political. (e.g. Do we crush an emerging nation’s efforts at self-determination to insure they don’t opt for a governing system that might threaten our status as global leader, our commerce and, with that, our national security, or do our democratic values of fairness and freedom come ahead of those values?) In short, betrayals of principle are neither abnormal nor rare: they are a normative part of our daily lives.

Nonetheless, we manage to live with the consequences of these betrayals. We accept them as inevitable or out of our control. We feel bad for a moment, even feel guilt and remorse, but we promptly forget and move on. We don’t berate or flog ourselves; we learn and grow from this experience. We become wiser to the ways of the world and of mankind and about ourselves. We see and understand that life is neither simple nor easy. We forgive ourselves and accept that we’re not perfect and life isn’t either. We see that for everything there is a season. So we do the best we can and truck on.

But there’s a problem regarding our current betrayals: we may be getting older, but we are not becoming wiser. We do berate and flog, only this time, the other fellow – not ourselves. We are certainly not moving on, not in the sense of growth and wisdom, we are missing a step. We’re missing that step where we feel bad. We don’t feel bad, not even for an instant, and we neither notice nor care. It is as if, for that learning and growing step, there must first be some reaction to our infidelity, at least some acknowledgment that our choice had consequences, that there’s a principle we value that we’re dishonoring.

I am a Vietnam veteran. I faced an ethical bind during that war wherein I had to choose between two ethical imperatives: my military orders as an officer or my Hippocratic Oath as a doctor. I chose my oath over my orders, even though this made me indirectly complicit in American casualties down the road. However, I never felt badly. I never experienced guilt or remorse or even noted that consequence of my choice. When I came home, I just got on with my life. But, years later, when I revisited that experience to write a book about it, I recalled and felt the consequences. I experienced that overdue guilt and remorse. Why did it take so long? When I examined how I managed to dodge those feelings for so long, I found something that relates to today’s toxic partisanship. Back then, when I wasn’t ready to process and accept those consequences, I dodged the experience of guilt by means of selectively bonding with like-minded friends and by blaming others for putting me in this bind, something I did instinctively, automatically. I never consciously decided to bond and blame that way. This insight into the defensive function of those bonding and blaming behaviors, along with the recognition of their reflex nature, drew my attention to my current bonding and blaming vis-a-vis today’s issues. The two felt related. I began connecting dots.

This is where they led. When we betray a principle that we value, the shock-organ that takes the hit is our sense of our wholeness, our integrity. We react defensively by holding on to the integrity that remains, an obvious reflex, given its universality. (The normative reaction to physical assault is, after all, defense with counter-attack, bonding and blaming an obvious iteration of that reflex). Our apparent conflation of personal integrity with our defense of public integrities nowadays begins to make sense. We address our personal issues via public proxy and vice versa – it doesn’t matter which came first or which is primary. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our passionate defense of integrities related to politics, education, sexuality, religion, and sports and our passionate defense of personal biases, beliefs, values, and priorities not only co-exist, but mirror and reinforce one another. And it should be no surprise, either, that our toxic civil discourse feels so personal. It is personal. This synchrony between a part of ourselves very much in our awareness and another under our radar has now become like a popular dance, our national dance-macabre, now all the rage.

What is needed clearly goes beyond a better defense. It’s recovery we seek, a restoration, not just of our national well-being but of our personal integrity and self-respect along with it. The good news is that energies of healing are always there for us, always operating. The good news is also that recovery may simply be about something we ought to stop doing rather than something we must start doing. It may not be healing per se we must effect here, but rather getting ourselves out of the way of healing processes currently underway. Our toxic behaviors, after all, began as defensive operations, as field-dressings, did they not? And field-dressings are never designed to be complete or permanent. It’s O.K. to remove such dressings, especially when they’re getting in the way.

Restoration begins with this recognition that field-dressings have an expiration date, that integrity and self-respect rise and fall together, and that we routinely delay feeling an emotional impact if we’re not ready to deal with it; we block it from our awareness. Further, we know from observation and experience that this latter defensive action is initiated and driven by an automatic process, by reflexes that we can neither avoid nor ban; at best we manage them. And when we eventually engage and process those delayed-reaction emotional traumas, we find that making ourselves more whole doesn’t necessarily make us happy. Truth can hurt. Healing hurts. The pains that follow bodily injury are all post-trauma pains emanating from our body’s self-healing actions. Finally, everyday observations and experience (confirmed by studies) show that positive energies flow both ways (thinking of the baby smiling in response to your smile, or your lifted spirits seeing the wagging tail of your dog happy to see you). This reciprocity is automatic. That the opposite is true is obvious (e.g. the impulse to “get even” or “get back” when someone hurts us). What goes around does come around. Just as reflexes of defense seem to have been what got us into this toxic valley, reflexes of reciprocity may just prove the ticket out.

Here’s the plan. We start showing respect for the humanity of others. That show of respect is what will redeem our flagging self-respect which, in turn, will restore our bruised integrity. That a show of respect is the heart of the remedy should come as no surprise. This issue of respect is, after all, the common denominator to all those issues about which today’s partisanship has become toxic. Every issue, from President Kim Jong Un of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to separate movements; from sexual predators of women and boys in America to old war memorials; from footballers who kneel during the national anthem to gun control; from social norms to truth, terrorism, and science; and from the press and the president to transgender men and women – all these have as their common denominator this issue of respect, respect for integrities. As I see it, we reverse the processes that generate the toxicity by showing respect for the other’s humanity, which redeems our self-respect, which restores our integrity. Our show of respect is the catalyst and reciprocity takes care of the rest.

There’s more. This show of respect in conversations and relationships with those we hate, despise, and fear – or, our talking about such people to our friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and relatives – must hold true for conversations with ourselves in our heads, as well; our relationship with ourselves being a communicative relationship, too – I’ll come back to this. The good news is we don’t need to feel that respect. We don’t even have to mean it. We need only show it, as if someone was always there listening.

Here’s how we show it. We discontinue habits of disrespect and do so by deleting terms that demonize, demean, and trivialize the other from our conversations, including conversations with ourselves in our heads. We delete words that would identity a person as alien or subhuman or as the “enemy of God”. If we must use – or can’t stop ourselves from using – such terms, we deliberately preface them with “as if” (e.g. It’s “as if” he’s the Devil). Our prescription is clearly not about loving our foes or forgiveness. We must still seek to destroy lethal enemies on the battlefield. But this is not because they are sub-human or evil. Those are metaphors we unfortunately conflate with reality (and forget the distinction). It is because their actions are evil and inhuman.

Deep down we already know all of this. While a part of us may feel awkward to be speaking and thinking this new way, another part of us will recognize and respect such a voice and will feel relief. That part of us is our better nature.

Again, the engine that drives this process is reciprocity, well known to us as part of our nature. It’s in our genes. Someone we know looks at us smiling, we smile back. A child extends a hand, we take that hand. A crowd applauds our performance and we smile, sometimes nod, even bow to them in response. We don’t pause, reflect, and decide to do this. It happens. Less obvious is how such reciprocity manifests itself in our relationship with ourselves. But here, too, it should not be totally unfamiliar. Who hasn’t personally experienced or observed and appreciated the power that words spoken to ourselves carry, represented by the mantra, “I think I can. I think I can,” from the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper? What we say to ourselves in our heads is, in fact, heard. A party is listening and hearing, a party whose judgment matters to us and that someone, for lack of a better designation, is our better nature. This is the part of us that knows we can do better, that we’re better than this and, at the end of the day, it will be this part that does the heavy lifting. It’s our recovered integrity, after all, that will get us out of the way of recovery. Our better nature needs to retake the wheel in the wheelhouse in our heads. Or, returning to our medical metaphor, our field-dressing has overstayed its welcome and is now in the way of more complete and lasting healing.

I read that saving one person’s life is to save the world. Maybe healing one person is, likewise, to heal the world. Let’s see.


Lawrence H. Climo is a Vietnam Veteran, retired psychiatrist, and author of The Patient Was Vietcong: An American Doctor in the Vietnamese Health Service 1966-1967, Psychiatrist on the Road: Encounters in Healing and Healthcare, and Caregiving: Lives Derailed (under the pseudonym Eli Cannon). This piece is drawn from America’s Toxic Divisiveness, Our National Malady: How It Happened, Why We Abet and Indulge It, and What Can Be Done About It – A 21st Century Application of Midrash(unpublished).

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