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Civil Obedience: Defusing A Heated Moment

Protesters angry at the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of black teen Trayvon Martin march through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, July 16.
Robyn Beck
AFP/Getty Images
Protesters angry at the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of black teen Trayvon Martin march through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, July 16.

America is showing its seams, its disunion.

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, a long, sweltering summer of protests and protestations is upon us. People with variegated viewpoints have taken to the streets and airwaves to vent. For some, the not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman was the end of the story; for others it was the beginning.

The debate over whether justice was served in the highly watched case is bringing out loud voices and rash reactions. The events that took place that awful night in Florida, events now at the heart of the national dispute, show us how quickly confrontations can become tragedies.

In pursuit of ways to deal with heated disputes that might spin out of control, we seek the counsel of Cassandra Dahnke, co-founder of the in Houston. She will be in Washington this week to lead the Citizens' Civility Symposium, a bipartisan gathering on Capitol Hill to examine "the importance, challenges, and opportunities for practicing civility in the current culture of partisanship and polarization."

So how should we deal with tinderbox confrontations in everyday life? Dahnke says she is reluctant to comment on specific occurrences, but that when we are in tense situations, the beliefs and behaviors we depend — and act — on tend to be those that are most deeply rooted within us. "A tense situation," Dahnke says, "is seldom one in which we decide to try a new or unfamiliar approach to a problem."

Does civility help defuse volatile confrontation? "Every situation is different, but anecdotal evidence — and most faith traditions — suggests that it does," she says. "While safety is always a primary concern, civility is, at the very least, worth a good first try."

How do we weave civility into the national fabric? Civility, Dahnke points out, is a learned behavior that must be taught and must be practiced. "Civility skills need constant attention and exercise if they are to be our first and most natural approach to difficult situations and heated confrontations that might otherwise turn violent."

She adds: "If civility is going to be the norm, though, it must be practiced by individuals and embraced by societies. Right now, what this country will choose to embrace for its norms seems to be increasingly open for debate."


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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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