What Would a Humanist Do? Is Civility Worth Overlooking Hateful Attitudes?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Today we bring you our latest installment of “What Would a Humanist Do?”—offering multiple AHA staff opinions on reader questions. Because while humanists are committed to being good without a god, sometimes they need a little advice on how to pull it off.

Q: I know that lack of civility is a serious problem. Each side in our polarized society blames the other, and it seems like our society is breaking down. I’m horrified by the inhumanity I hear and read about, and at the same time I’m told that to improve civility we need to come out of our echo chambers and listen to each other calmly. Trouble is, theocrats turn my stomach. I’ve been villainized by them for so long that I can’t imagine calmly communicating with them. It doesn’t help that I’m on the autism spectrum and don’t have great communication skills. How can we improve civility without underplaying our horror at the religious right’s human rights abuses?

—Seeking Civility


It’s certainly easy to feel overwhelmed by the state of civility today. I often find myself wondering if things are actually worse now, or if they just appear worse because the structure of today’s media causes us to know more. Or, more likely, maybe it’s the modern media landscape that’s actually making things worse.

If civility is your end goal, then you should seek to understand the other side. It sounds like communicating with religious conservatives may be a step too far for you, so you could try reading articles that express perspectives different than your own. I often find myself reading posts by conservative pundits on Twitter so I can (at least attempt to) understand their point of view. How can I interpret a particular news event to mean outcome X, when a conservative peer will interpret that same news event to mean outcome Y? Oftentimes, if you do some light reading, they’ll spell it right out for you.

I’m not telling you to convert your thinking or abandon your values, but understanding the thought processes of those with whom you disagree may help in some small way.

I understand how and why you feel horrified, but it’s important that you don’t try to put the world’s problems on your shoulders alone. At the end of the day, all we can truly do to make a difference is to embody the types of qualities we want to see in the world. Find ways to exercise kindness and empathy. Your contribution to your world—no matter how small—is all that matters.

—Peter Bjork

I struggle with these same questions. Finding common ground is one thing, but if you have to step around multiple minefields to find a small slice of safe space you wonder if it’s worth it. Is civility just being nice to each other superficially and ignoring profound differences? Is this really what you want, or are you more interested in actually changing hearts and minds?

Like Peter said, as an individual you shouldn’t feel responsible for preventing the breakdown of society. Without a specific scenario to respond to, I’d just say if you find yourself confronted by someone who holds very different views that you on issues as important as human rights, you’ll need to assess if you want to challenge them or not. If you’re at a protest, for example, and someone’s holding a sign that says gay people are going to hell, you’re probably not going to get them to change their minds on the spot. (Even so, you could just say, “that’s really hurtful.”) If the situation is more subtle, let’s say your neighbor has a lawn sign supporting a political candidate who espouses hateful views, you can take the initiative to interact with them in a casual, civil way to start. Establish a friendly rapport on issues affecting your homes, the neighborhood, and so on. Later you can decide if, when, and how to make your position on weightier topics known. Sometimes just slipping in a certain movie you like or a book you read offers cues to your worldview, and instead of causing an immediate knee jerk from the other person, a bit of cognitive dissonance may occur that allows them to see you not as “the other side,” but as a multi-faceted human being. I think in the end everyone wants to be seen as such.

—Jennifer Bardi