Reclaiming Civility

The erosion of political culture has consequences for corporate culture as well. A child’s brain is like a sponge, absorbing everything with which it comes in contact. As the brain gets older it learns to process, to analyze, to interpret. And eventually, it begins to slow, begins to forget, begins to lose function.

Few prospects are as forbidding as mental decline, the specter of which haunts us as we advance toward old age. And so the experts tell us to keep our minds active, that using the brain is the surest way to stave off mental deterioration.

  • Crossword puzzles
  • Sudoku
  • Word games
  • Logic problems

These are common recipes from the diet books for the mind. But don’t stop there; the more creative and more challenging, the better for your brain.

  • Go traveling
  • Take up knitting or gardening
  • Learn Italian
  • Drive a different way to work
  • Get an advanced degree

Anything and everything that piques cognitive activity belongs in our catalogue of mental health activities.

Healthy disagreement

“That’s all good,” says Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind and New York Times health and medical science editor. But the most intriguing advice Ms. Strauch has heard is this:

Deliberately challenge your view of the world. Talk to people you totally disagree with.

It makes sense. Nothing kicks the brain into overdrive like having to defend your point of view against attack, or the desire to dismantle an argument you find unsound or wrongheaded. What’s more, Ms. Strauch asserts that the brain is actually primed for questioning assumptions, since reexamining our beliefs provides the opportunity to revisit, or more deeply contemplate, why we believe the way we do.

“Confronting things you disagree with may not make you change your mind,” she says, “but it will perhaps give you a view that is more satisfying to the middle-aged brain.”

And who knows? Sometimes we may even discover that we’ve been wrong.

Don’t rock the boat?

Bill Bishop would almost certainly agree. In his 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Mr. Bishop shows how local communities are becoming increasingly homogenous as people sort themselves into demographic cliques. The most striking irony is how the increasing singularity of ideas and values in neighborhoods across the country is resulting in increasing divisiveness throughout the country as a whole.

The statistical evidence is compelling:

The 2004 reelection of George W. Bush over John Kerry was decided nationally by one closely contested state (Ohio) and a sliver of the electorate; in the same election, almost half the counties in the country recorded landslide victories locally for either one candidate or the other, nearly double the percentage recorded in 1976.

Mr. Bishop describes how economic and geographical mobility allowed people to orient themselves around and among others who share their beliefs, values, and predilections. Members of religious and civic organizations have become increasingly uniform in their ways of thinking, particularly with respect to politics.

Citing marketing analyst J. Walker Smith, Mr. Bishop explains how a pervasive movement of “self-invention” gave rise to a desire to impose our will upon the world around us, to redefine ourselves and our environment according to our own narrow world view. According to Mr. Smith, prosperity and technology have enabled people to “wrap themselves into cocoons entirely of their own making.” We expect the world to be the way we want it to be, with no room for compromise.

Mr. Bishop reaches the conclusion that:

As people seek out the social settings they prefer — as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable — the nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.

We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Hi Yonason,

    As someone whose thinking has evolved as well as being raised around differences, I have tried to be tolerant of different perspectives. Unfortunately, I have observed name-calling and judgements cloaked in intellectualism from those who purportedly know better. I suppose I am being hypocritical when I refer to this behavior as the so-called tolerant intolerance of which I am intolerant. I plan on writing about this.💖

    • I don’t think that’s hypocrisy at all, Darlene. The sages teach: Be deliberate in judgment. They do not say: don’t judge.

      We are supposed to make moral judgments, as long as we have all our facts straight first and remain ever-watchful for personal bias.

      In my diversity keynote, I suggest that we do away with the word “tolerance” and replace it with “temperance.” It’s interesting to note that in Biblical Hebrew there is no word for tolerance. Why not? Because if something is evil, how can I tolerate it? And if it is not evil, why should I need to?

      Rather, we should temper our responses and always speak respectfully and reasonably, even when we are passionate about our cause, and even when others are irrational or inconsistent. Pointing out logical inconsistency in others is not disrespectful, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable. After all, it should.

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful remarks.

  2. Very well written Yonason,
    I like the idea of listening to those with opposing views. I respect opinions but find it interesting to see why some people think and chose the way they do. And your right.. we are able to adjust with new perspectives and knowledge every moment of our lives. We can also become more strongly tied to our own ideas when we feel the reasons are weak.
    Thank you for this thoughtful piece! “An open mind is the best kind” P