I had someone recently ask me to provide a definition of civility.

The textbook definition is “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.”

I’ll grant you it can be a subjective thing, much like U.S. Supreme Justice Potter Stewart who said he couldn’t provide a comprehensive definition for pornography, “But I know it when I see it.”

Certainly being polite is part of it. But promoting civil discourse is about more than saying “please” and “thank you.”

It’s about disagreeing without disrespecting. It’s about recognizing that while you feel one way, there are human beings on the other side who feel differently — and that alone does not make them bad people. 

Have you been on social media lately? It is brutal! 

Forget about giving someone the benefit of the doubt, or extending grace to others, or even looking for common ground. 

It has become a world of two sides and if you don't agree with what the other person thinks, in every detail, you are told that you — yes, you — are what is wrong with the world.

I’ve actually received a letter saying this very thing. Someone went to the trouble of typing up that comment, putting it in an envelope and mailing it to me.

They neglected to tell me their name, so I have been unable these past several years to reach out and apologize for whatever it was that I did that made me the embodiment of all that is wrong in the world. 

But online comments are even more harsh than that. And because you can type and post so quickly, you may not give yourself the time to stop and think about what you’re saying. It’s impersonal, so who cares if you are overly rude or harsh?

You end up saying things to people you would never say in person, often forgetting that a person would be reading it. It’s just some random name. 

Some people say this uncivil discourse is simply push back against “political correctness” and people “telling it like it is.”

A 2018 study found 80% of people believe we’re all too politically correct. 

Finally! Something we can agree on!

The problem is we’re using the pushback against “PC Culture” to be purposefully rude and to dismiss anyone we may disagree with without bothering to have a conversation. 

And let’s be perfectly clear — both sides of the political spectrum are to blame.

Far too many folks are pretty quick to call comments racist or hateful. Far too many others are pretty quick to call people snowflakes or say they’re “triggered.”

Among efforts to build bridges and heal some of the divided country is One Small Step, a project of StoryCorps, helps bring people together to have real conversations about real issues.  

Two people with opposing political views of all backgrounds sit down and talk. 

That's it. 

And as they talk, they see the humanity of the other person. The Storycorps app, available for iPhone and Android phones, walks participants through a series of questions that remind the folks taking part that we have more in common than we might think. 

NPR matched up participants who didn’t know each other, but Storycorps recommends using the app in conversations with someone you know, adding it is not suited for conversations with strangers.

The questions go beyond “Why do you think this way?” to learning about someone’s past, their upbringing, their hometown. It asks participants to share events that helped shape political views or identify traits they admire in people on the other side of the political spectrum. 

This is real life. The people don't magically solve their differences and come up with perfect solutions to complex problems that everyone will love. 

But they do leave understanding that people with different opinions really aren't that different. Most people agree on 90% of everything. But we lose our minds over the 10%. And through these conversations, these small steps, they're learning how to disagree without being rude and disagreeable. 

You can find the podcast online. It's worth a listen. And it might just brighten your day.

StoryCorps is looking to expand its One Small Step project in 2020, and they’re seeking people in communities around the country to sit down with folks and record conversations. If you want to be part of this endeavor, email onesmallstep@storycorps.org.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.