Favor the face-to-face or the phone call to the email or the tweet. Step into another’s experience and invite them into yours. Engage in self-reflection.
Five Nebraska senators shared the civility lessons they’ve learned and practiced on the floor of the country’s only unicameral, non-partisan legislature during a Nov. 19 panel discussion that capped the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Peace and Civility project.
Chancellor Ronnie Green kicked off Breaking Through Politics: Meeting in the Middle by lauding the panelists — Tom Brandt, Myron Dorn, Suzanne Geist, Patty Pansing Brooks and Anna Wishart — as senators “well-known for working across the aisle.”
Green then gave way to moderator Rick Alloway, associate professor of broadcasting, who began with the most fundamental of questions: How do you define “civil discourse”?
“What I think of … is two individuals talking to each other about something which they may disagree on, but they can talk without personally attacking each other,” Geist said.
Dorn, Brandt and Pansing Brooks each advocated for the simple act of listening as a safeguard against devolving into ad hominem attacks.
“Part of the problem today is that sometimes people feel that they’re not being listened to, and that there’s not mutual respect,” Pansing Brooks said. “I think sometimes we have to work extra hard to show that respect.”
When asked to identify the primary suspects behind the apparent erosion of listening skills, the senators listed a few, including the dreaded conditioning of the 24-hour news cycle.
“(Sometimes) it almost seems like, ‘I want to know what the news is tomorrow at noon so that I can talk to you about it today at 5,’” Dorn said.
Brandt and Geist made the case for in-person, or at least in-voice, communication as a balm to the rash of inflammatory interactions online.
“A year ago, when I decided to run for the legislature, they made me get one of these,” Brandt said, holding up his smartphone before dropping it to the table with a thud. “This is where a lot of this discourse problem comes in.
“I get some very angry emails. … Then I’ll call them on the phone, and they’re the nicest people you’ve ever talked to. When they’ve got to talk to you, they react differently.”
Alloway, manager of the student-run KRNU radio station, echoed the sentiment. Defusing and disarming, he said, often starts with dialing.
“I have voicemails occasionally in the morning from someone who called at 3 o’clock in the morning, complaining about something that they didn’t get to hear or whatever,” said Alloway, who has also co-hosted a podcast on civility. “And invariably, when I call those people back, they melt.”
But the senators readily admitted that face-to-face interactions can also give rise to stern tests of civility, especially when facing the defeat of a bill that took months to draft or hearing a colleague dismiss an issue in which they have a personal stake.
In those blood-rush moments, Pansing Brooks said, it’s even more important to keep calm if a discussion is to avoid becoming a shouting match.
“I think the challenge is to not take things personally,” she said. “We all come from different perspectives. We have all come on different journeys to get where we are.”
Pansing Brooks credited Brandt for inviting her and other senators to his farm, where they got a sense of his journey — and the daily responsibilities of a Nebraska farmer.
“It is overwhelming,” Pansing Brooks said. “I couldn’t do what he does.”
“Sure you could,” Brandt replied. “You drove the combine.”
“I did drive the combine,” she conceded to laughs from the audience. “That kind of stuff is important. We’re on different sides of the aisle sometimes, but if I can go and learn about what’s important to him and what he’s doing, that helps me with my colleagues, to understand their positions on things.”
With “49 alphas” on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature, Brandt said he appreciates those who manage to “lose with grace and win with style.” Geist followed by explaining her own approach to resisting the baser reflexes of debate.
“When we’re not in the heat of the battle, one of the things I intentionally try to do is get to know my colleagues — to know their family, to know their children, their spouse — because it humanizes them more,” she said. “That way, if there’s ever a temptation to (go after them), those pictures flash through my mind.”
“I think a big issue facing our entire country, actually, is a lack of curiosity,” she said. “When people are confronted with somebody who says something that they disagree with or somebody who comes from a different background … there tends to be this instant, ‘I’m going to put you in a box and already determine what you’re like,’ instead of really being curious and trying to figure out why they think that way.”
She also tries to surround herself with people who challenge her perspectives, she said, a habit that has helped hone her self-awareness.
“I do think that it’s really important to hold yourself and the people you’re associated with to a high standard,” she said, “and before pointing fingers at other people or other groups of people, first checking yourself and making sure that you’re leading by example.”
Brandt unwittingly found himself learning a similar lesson in 1982, when, just as he was earning his bachelor’s in agriculture from Nebraska, the ag economy collapsed. He took a job at a meat-packing plant, where he worked alongside people from broad swaths of the demographic spectrum.
“Embrace the challenge of talking to other people,” he said in the way of advice to the students in attendance. “Do the things that you’re uncomfortable with. Talk with people you do not like talking with.”
Geist urged students to do the same.
“If you don’t like what you’re seeing right now, then choose a different path,” she said. “You need to be the instructors of the older generation and show us how it’s done, because the future of our country depends on the way that you all carry on after we’re gone.”