Civility Project: Finding Commonality, Letters from a Working Mom and an At-Home Mom

In her post, “A Letter from a Working Mother to a Stay-At-Home Mother, and Vice Versa,” Carolyn Ee publishes two letters of mutual appreciation between people who often find themselves pitted against each other. Some people think at-home moms have capitulated to outdated standards of gender hierarchy. Others view working moms as selfish women unwilling to put the needs of their family above their desires for career advancement. The moms writing these letters don’t accept those reductive and uncharitable descriptions of the other. They don’t express feeling threatened in their lifestyles simply because someone else took a different path. Instead they exhibit civility in a beautiful way. By naming the contributions of the other, the moms who write these letters show their admiration. In expressing their empathy for each other they discover that they really are on the same side.

Take these two examples.

In her letter to the at-home mom, the working mom writes:

SAHM, I don’t know how you do it. I admire your infinite patience, your ability to face each day cheerfully and bring joy into your children’s lives even when they wear you down. I admire your dedication to being a constant presence in your children’s lives even if it isn’t always easy. I admire the way you work without expecting any reward – no promotions, no fame, no salary. I know you want your children to feel important and loved, and SAHM, you do this the best.

In her letter to the working mom, the at-home mom writes:

I see you everywhere. You are the doctor I take my children to when they are sick. You’re my child’s allergist, the one who diagnosed her peanut allergy. You’re the physiotherapist who treated my husband’s back. You’re the accountant who does our tax returns. My son’s primary school teacher. The director of our childcare centre. My daughter’s gymnastics teacher. The real estate agent who sold our house. What sort of world would it be if you hadn’t been there for us? If you had succumbed to the pressures of those who insisted a mother’s place had to be in the home?

So often we fall into the temptation to think because we disagree on a topic or have taken different paths in life, we are diametrically opposed to one another. These letters show that if we take a step back, we might see that our intentions are often the same. In the case of these mothers, their similar goal is to care for their families, even though they have chosen different means of doing so.

I often find in our rhetoric, political and otherwise, a knee-jerk assumption of the worst motives in those who disagree with us. It is not enough to think someone’s views are wrong, we also assume they have malicious intent. But what if we made it a practice to say what we appreciate in our opponents? What if we took the time to verbalize our gratitude for their contributions and affirmed their good intentions (no matter how wrong we might think their views are)? We might discover, like the moms who wrote these letters, that we are not so different as we think we are.

That is not to say we are going to agree on all matters. I don’t believe that is the goal of civility. Instead, civility creates the space where we hash out different points of view. Because of civility we can listen, understand, and accurately agree or disagree with one another.

The kind of civility these moms exhibit requires a great amount of humility. We have to allow ourselves to believe that other people have a contribution to make and we may not have all the answers.

Who would you consider your enemy? Which people do you find yourself disagreeing with on a regular basis? Take a moment and consider what they contribute positively. What do you appreciate about them and how might you learn from them?

Civility Project: Brandon Ambrosino on Gay Marriage and Homophobia

I proclaimed 2014 as the year of civility here at The Space Between My Ears. In this Civility Project I want to highlight concrete examples and writings that display respectful interactions between folks who disagree with each other about topics they deem important. I hope and pray that by focusing on this important virtue, we will become more civil toward others.

For my first post in the Civility Project, I want to draw attention to a December 2013 piece by Brandon Ambrosino in The Atlantic titled, “Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn’t Make You a Homophobe.” The article’s subtitle clearly articulates Ambrosino’s main argument: “Some people just aren’t sure about marriage equality—but their reasoning isn’t necessarily a reflection of their character.” (This article and Ambrosino’s generous tone sparked the idea for the Civility Project.) Ambrosino is a gay man who advocates for full recognition of same-sex marriage. His willingness to acknowledge the moral character of his opponents comes as a breath of fresh air in a debate in which hard lines are becoming the norm. Ambrosino responds to a piece on The Huffington Post by Paul Raushenbush declaring anyone against gay marriage is anti-gay. Ambrosino writes:

As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay. That’s despite the fact that while some religious people don’t support gay marriage in a sacramental sense, many of them are in favor of same-sex civil unions and full rights for the parties involved. To be sure, most gay people, myself included, won’t be satisfied until our loving, monogamous relationships are graced with the word “marriage.” But it’s important to recall that many religious individuals do support strong civil rights for the gay members of their communities.

In  the article, Ambrosino concretely practices civility. He seeks to first understand his opponents’ positions—he wants to know their arguments and how they reached their conclusions. At the same time, Ambrosino is clear that he believes his opponents are wrong for not supporting gay marriage and he finds their arguments sorely lacking. He does not take civil discussion to mean we have to ignore our differences. In our interactions with people who disagree with us, we must remember to not demonize them simply because they think differently than we do. In an acrimonious environment, this restraint and generosity are hard to practice. Ambrosino rightly reminds us, “Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.” It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanize.

Ambrosino’s article is not the kind of writing that will make most people happy, especially in the midst of such a heated debate. We like red meat. We like to read why we are right and virtuous and the other side is full of evil idiots. I saw both sides of the gay marriage debate use the recent Duck Dynasty kerfuffle as an opportunity to rally the troops and raise funds. I thankfully did see some willingness to understand the other’s position — i.e., exploring why some people would be hurt by Phil Robertson’s descriptions of homosexuality or why others would support Robertson’s call for a traditional understanding of marriage. But writings of that sort were not the norm. I saw far more works immediately digging trenches.

I’m not deluded to believe we won’t encounter thinking or people who are morally suspect. I merely hope we can follow Ambrosino’s example in not initially assuming someone has poor character because they disagree with us. He is right to call us to first give the other person the benefit of the doubt before labeling them a bigot or a degenerate. This kind of civil posture toward others requires character formation and practice. It also requires a community of people committed to practicing civility so that we might hold each other accountable.

2014: The Year of Civility

I’ve decided to proclaim 2014 as the year of civility here at The Space Between My Ears. I want to highlight examples and writings that display respectful interactions between folks who disagree with each other about topics they deem important. We need to remind ourselves to see our neighbors as our neighbors and not as sub-human because they hold different values than we do. My hope is not to downplay our differences, but to draw attention to folks who find ways to truly listen to what others have to say, appreciate alternative positions, and respectfully disagree. Given that in the U.S. we have a midterm election in November, I know I need a booster shot of civility before the political rhetoric grows even more rancorous.

More than simply celebrating examples of civility, I hope and pray that by focusing on this important virtue, that I will become more civil toward others. I hope that I can truly listen with an intent to learn and first focus on areas of agreement before moving to disagreement. I probably won’t get to be a cable news pundit following this route, but I’m OK with that.

I also plan to read Richard Mouwe’s short book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Otherwise Uncivil WorldPerhaps it will be a book club feature at some point so that folks who are also interested in this book can read it in an online community.

I created a category, Civility Project, for easy access to the posts on the topic.