Conflict and civility

Conflict and Civility: “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

 “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” History suggests we cannot all just get along. Conflict has replaced civility in our public places. This quote is a paraphrase of something Los Angeles taxi driver, Rodney King, said in 1992 when riots spread destruction, death, and terror across the city. In 1991 four police officers brutally beat King, a man of African descent, when they caught him after a high-speed chase. A man who recorded King’s beating from a nearby balcony released it to a local news channel.       

In 1992 a predominately Caucasian jury failed to convict the officers. An outburst of pent up frustration, anger, and resentment erupted into lethal riots that lasted nearly a week. During that week King made a public appearance to ask, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?” King was eventually compensated over $3 Million in damages and died at age forty-seven. It was a sad end to a tragic event that has been repeated too many times in too many cities since.

Conflict Throughout History

Conflict is nothing new. Humans have been at war from the beginning. Scripture records numerous wars and conflicts among family members, tribes and nations. If we take the Bible literally we might conclude God condones these conflicts. After all, King David is often lifted up as a hero even though he sent Bathsheba’s husband to the front line, hoping he would die in battle. David wanted the man’s wife for himself.

The Biblical account of human interactions illustrates God’s relentless efforts to get us to reconcile with one another. Over and over God tells people to put down their weapons and work together to create communities comprised of mutual cooperation and respect. The quote from Ephesians was written to two groups in the early church who were in conflict with one another. It is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago.

Conflicts erupt in families all the time. Sometimes there are good reasons for this. When someone only knows how to be a bully, ruthlessly abusing others, swindling them, and taking advantage of them, but never accepting responsibility for the pain they inflict, challenging them or disconnecting from them may be the only healthy response.

Causes of Conflict

Most conflicts though are the result of two or more people equally determined have their own way. They disagree on the best way forward and won’t consider the option of cooperation and compromise. My father and his sister were estranged for years over the details of how to care for their widowed mother when she needed financial, physical, and emotional support. The extent of their bitter differences surfaced after they had both died and we found a series of letters expressing their disagreements in our aunt’s apartment.

Our country has long overlooked telling the full history of the lethal conflicts between the first people to dwell here and the thousands of immigrants who starting arriving in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. History records a few times when people of different cultures collaborated for the mutual benefit of all. Sadly, such stories are a very small percentage of such encounters. More often different cultures collided over land use and other issues, resulting in countless unnecessary tragedies.

Conflict in Cyber Space

Today we can also carry our conflicts to the Internet. Social media was originally intended to be a place where people shared information, stories about what they’ve been doing, and things they found amusing or amazing.  Back in the 90’s a friend was enthusiastically extolling the virtues of this new way of communicating. To prove his point, he told me how the Internet enabled a Texas agriculture professor to help an African farmer get more produce for his efforts.

The Internet has truly woven us together into one global village.  However, anything that can be created can be corrupted. We are often subjected to abusive, vile, insulting language on what was supposed to be social media because we posted an opinion that differs from someone else’s. Nefarious crooks take to the Internet to rob and deceive us.

Six Tips for Reducing Conflict and Increasing Civility

I’ve found these tips have helped me de-escalate situations before they become ugly. Perhaps they’ll help you too next time you find yourself heading into a conflict.

  • Take a time out. Don’t storm out, but do leave the situation and let it cool down. You might need a few minutes, a good night’s sleep, or maybe even longer, depending on the situation.
  • Determine who owns the problem. Is it something I’ve done or said that set it off? Then an apology is in order. Maybe the other was just having one of those days and I inadvertently added the last straw. On the other hand if they said or did something that set me off, I need to deal with my own feelings. I need to try to decide why that set me off. Often the presenting issue isn’t really the issue at all, but it can be pretty hard to figure out what the real issue is. We all have deeply buried emotional landlines we don’t even realize are there – until someone steps on them.
  • Don’t match volume for volume. When the other raises their volume, lower yours and talk more slowly.
  • Refrain from exchanging insult for insult. Though this negative behavior is often modeled on social media and in movies and television shows, it really isn’t going to help. Eleanor Roosevelt was absolutely right when she said no one could insult you without you permission.
  • Put an end to conversations that are clearly headed toward a conflict with a positive, but firm ending statement such as, “I guess we aren’t going to agree on this.” Or “I care about you too much to let this disagreement get between us.” Then gently, but firmly end the conversation or change the subject. The same principle applies to comment chains on social media.
  • Pray, meditate, journal, go for long walk, bake something, plant something, spend time with a friend or pet dog or cat. Do something that has nothing to do with the conflict to give time a chance to heal the wound.

Give Civility A Chance

I don’t see conflict stopping anytime soon. Humans seem hard-wired to lash out, retaliate, cut-off, and resort to physical or mental violence and cruelty.  I would love to see the day when we could all answer Rodney King’s famous question with a resounding, “Yes, we can all get along!” Until then, can we agree to do what each of us can to insert a little civility in our communities? Especially toward those with whom we totally disagree? Can we do that?