This post was written and published on in 2015, but the issues it addresses remain ones we still wrestle with in 2018.

We’ve lost the art of civil discourse. According to an annual “Civility in America” survey, more than 90% of us now consider lack of civility a real problem. More than a third of us admit to being uncivil to others. When we take into account social desirability bias, we know that there are a lot more of us out there who are not engaging in civil discourse. Our inability to enter into genuine conversation is undermining our communities and denying ourselves the opportunity to learn about each other. It’s time for a change. (For more on the civility survey, click here. UPDATE: Click here to see the 2018 survey which shows that more than 90% of us still consider lack of civility to be a real problem.)

In a 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College in Ohio, the late David Foster Wallace shared a story that captures our inability to communicate with each other. Two guys were sitting in a remote Alaskan bar. One religious; the other an atheist. They’re talking about God. The atheist admits that he’s tried to believe in God, explaining that he recently got lost in a snowstorm and almost froze to death. Out of desperation, he cried out to God: “I’m lost in this blizzard and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.”

Upon hearing this, his religious friend is surprised and says, “Well then, you must believe now! After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist rolls his eyes, disappointed by his religious friend’s belief that God saved him. He explains that some good-hearted Eskimos came wandering by and helped him find his way to safety. Now it was the religious man’s turn to be disappointed by his friend’s belief that Eskimos saved him.

The conversation was over.

As cited in David Brooks’ Road To Character, Wallace’s speech talks about our default setting – an integral part of our being that pushes us to defend our belief in something. When something flies in the face of our belief, this default setting kicks in: we hold onto our belief and do everything in our power to shut down anyone that contradicts it.

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