Despite Polarity Among Citizens on Various Issues, Civility Alive and Well in the Ozarks

Sep 26, 2017

At times it seems that civility is dead.  People are constantly at odds with one another, and shouting matches are all too common, especially online.  Social media is often used as a battleground where people who disagree on various issues fight with words.   People who were once friends no longer talk because their political or other beliefs are different.  

Despite that, there are many things happening in the Ozarks that show civility and attempts to understand one another are, in fact, very much alive.

Big Momma’s, a coffee shop and café on Commercial St., is the place where a series of conversations called Tough Talks was launched.  Its owner, Lyle Foster, is a professor of sociology at Missouri State University.   The series grew from questions his students would ask about tough topics like race, and there wasn’t always time to take the conversations deeper.

"I also felt that many students were curious about differences," Foster said.

It was in the aftermath of the protests and riots in Ferguson and the protests around race on the Mizzou campus, and the conversations focused on racial issues.  At times, it was standing room only.

Tough Talks are now being held on the Missouri State University campus, and Foster says they’re in the middle of two conversation threads now:  “After Charlottesville:  What Next?” and “Is Missouri a Safe State?”  The latter focuses on the travel advisory issued by the Missouri NAACP.

Foster said it’s critical that we have these conversations.

"Having the ability to talk to one another I think is extremely important now where people are very isolated, people are very divided politically, socially, economically," he said, "and I have seen the power of people finding out another person's story and then saying for the first time, 'I understand your point of view.  I never considered that.'"

According to Foster, there are Rules of Engagement that participants must follow, including being courteous and respectful of fellow participants.  We listen to one another, he said, and then respond.  People get a chance to understand how to have a conversation with someone with a different point of view than theirs.

"And sometimes you may find out your point of view is not as different as you may think," said Foster.

According to Foster, civility, for him, isn’t always about everyone being polite and nice to one another.  Civility, he said, doesn’t always mean keeping one’s emotions in check.

"We have emotions for a reason," he said, so in Tough Talks there are times people cry, occasionally people may raise their voices.  One or two people have actually shouted.  But, when they let that out, the conversation went back on as normal."

Another example of civility followed a recent news conference in Springfield at the Bartley-Decatur House, held by the Springfield NAACP Chapter to explain the travel advisory and concerns about Senate Bill 43 and racial profiling in Missouri.  Steve Wiemer lives nearby.  He had heard about the event and decided to go.  The owner of Enterprise Park Lanes, when the floor was opened up for questions, expressed his concerns about the travel advisory and how it might impact his business.  He was verbally attacked by another attendee who said Wiemer had hi-jacked NAACP President Cheryl Clay’s press conference.

Instead of being upset, Clay offered to sit down with Wiemer to discuss their differences.  Wiemer, speaking about the experience at his bowling alley said, after the press conference, Clay drove him to Big Momma’s for an hour-long lunch.

"I actually had walked over, so I had to get a ride with her over.  We were going to lunch, so, you know, she had to take me to lunch," he said.  "And we had a great conversation, and part of it, a small part of it was a discussion on what we had just talked about in her meeting.  And we discussed all kinds of other things.  We discussed the upcoming NAACP state event and whether or not I would be interested in serving with her in some other capacity at some time in the future, and I assured her I would."

While Wiemer said his views on the travel advisory didn’t change, and he doesn’t think Clay’s did either (she was unavailable for comment), he now has a better understanding of her concerns.  And he realized they maybe weren’t so far apart in the first place.

It’s essential, he said, to listen to other’s viewpoints.  

Another example of civility in the Ozarks is peaceful protests that pop up now and then in response to what’s happening in Washington or in response to racial issues, like the recent Jason Stockley verdict in St. Louis.  Instead of rioting or using other violent means to get their point across, these protesters stand on busy street corners and hold up signs.

One group that’s involved in several of these kinds of protests in response to what they see as injustice is Faith Voices of Southwest Missouri.

Emily Bowen-Marler, associate pastor at Brentwood Christian Church, takes part in an occasional protest. She said they, and nonviolent resistance, can be effective in drawing attention to a cause.

"When you have something that shuts down a street or inconveniences people, I know it makes people angry, but it also draws attention to the issue," she said.  "You know, I mean Martin Luther King Jr. had his marches happen in places and in ways that affected daily living for other people so that it was something that couldn't be ignored."

We live in a democracy where people are entitled to free speech, she said.  Peaceful protests and nonviolent resistance are ways people can rise up and speak out when they see injustices.

Rallies, too, are a way to share a message and get people fired up to support a cause.  An example is an event held on the first day of classes last month at Missouri State University.  At the rally, Lyle Foster had those in the crowd turn to the person next to him or her and repeat these words.

"You are my neighbor.  I care about you. You are my neighbor.  It matters to me what happens to you.  You are my neighbor.  And you are a part of this community.  And together we will make it better.   Together we will change things for the better."  

Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate, a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Missouri State, offered tips at the rally for engaging in civil dialogue. 

"It's OK to disagree," she said.  "It's even OK to argue.  It's actually very healthy to disagree and to argue.  The problem is when we disagree and argue in ways that are mean and hateful.  It's not necessary to disagree in mean and hateful ways."

She told the crowd, it’s alright to take a moment to breathe or even walk away before returning to the conversation.  Make sure you’re hearing what the other person is saying.  Clarify and ask questions.  And realize that it’s OK to disagree. 

Foster called the rally inspiring and powerful and a stand against hate, violence and racism.