Virginia: An Invitation to Embrace Civility 

By, Michele Zehr 


You’ve probably read this phrase somewhere before, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” This is what comes to mind when I see what is happening in Virginia, our country and much of the world. 


What do I mean by “doing the same thing over and over again?” I’m going to pull back the zoom lens from Virginia for just a moment to offer a broader, yet still relevant, perspective. 


Did you hear the shocking news? A group of remains belonging to 13 children, 24 women and 19 men were found buried along the east bank of the Nile River in northern Sudan. It is believed the deaths were caused by what officials are calling a “prolonged low-level war” between different ethnic groups who were fighting over finite resources such as water and food. 


Unceasing drought conditions were blamed for the scarcity of resources, causing both wildlife and humans alike to migrate to the areas where life-sustaining resources could be found. 


I bet after reading this, most of us would acknowledge it is tragic news and, at the same time, I’ll admit that stories like this get stored in “the world is so screwed up and appears beyond repair” file in my brain. In other words, I have no idea what I can do to change this situation in Sudan and, sadly, I’m not shocked to hear this happened. These types of stories of human war and conflict have become normalized as if they are just everyday fare. You wake up in the morning, turn on the news while drinking your coffee and the headlines might look like this: 


Harvey Weinstein Case May Be Unraveling. 56 Found Dead in Northern Sudan Due to War and Drought. L.A. Dodgers Headed to the World Series. 


So why did I describe this normal everyday story shocking


The conflict in northern Sudan I describe above took place 13,000 years ago! Take that in for just a second. Do you realize that 13,000 years ago wooly mammoths still roamed parts of the Earth? 


Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

According to French scientists working in collaboration with the British Museum, this conflict is considered the “world’s oldest known relatively large-scale human armed conflict.” It is the first known human war, and the skeletal remains were discovered during the UNESCO High Dam salvage project, a fast-paced archaeological project that records, excavates and collects archaeological data from a specific region prior to development. In this case, the project preceded the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which was built after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.  


Wars, conflicts, fights and battles all share one thing in common. One side believes “we are right,” the other side believes “we are right” and they both believe, “Everything would be fine if the other side would just believe what we believe!” 


I know I’m simplifying this a bit, however, in the most fundamental sense, human conflict is fueled and supported by a binary system of black and white thinking—right vs. wrong; us vs. them; good vs. evil. You are either with us or you are against us. 


So, how is that working out so far? 


We’ve been warring for at least 13,000 years. We’ve never achieved permanent world peace, nor has “side A” succeeded in convincing “side B” that their viewpoints are wrong. In fact, an article in The New York Times reported, “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” That means our chosen approach to resolving differences has a 92 percent failure rate, assuming our ultimate goal is to live in peace on this little blue planet that we all have to figure out how to share. If anything else we did had a 92 percent failure rate that resulted in human deaths, we’d be trying other things pretty quickly; but instead, here we are, 13,000 years later, doing the same old thing. 


Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. 


I am dumbfounded by the fact that in 2019 we are still trying to resolve our differences through war, fighting, violence and oppression. It clearly doesn’t work. This brings me back to Virginia. I believe we have to find the courage to consider that perhaps a “third way of being together” should be explored. I call it “embracing the both/and through civility.” Virginia offers a beautiful invitation to do just that. 


I’ve lived in Virginia as an out and proud queer woman for the past 11 years. I have finally found my home and I absolutely love living in this beautiful place. Prior to Virginia, I lived in states that were considered “the buckle of the bible belt,” as well as states that you can safely assume are accepting of queer people. Virginia is interesting because there are regions of the commonwealth that are very progressive, where businesses proudly place rainbow stickers on their doors to let queer folks know we are welcomed and safe. However, if you drive even 30 minutes in any direction of that progressive region, you’ll likely see very few rainbow stickers and more confederate flags or Trump bumper stickers. Add to this that the capital of Virginia, Richmond, was once the proud capital of the Confederate States of America. We have a complicated ideological history that intersects with the current socio-political climate in this country. 


This is why I consider Virginia to be a both/and. In my experience, most cities and towns are comprised of a little bit of everything. Take Charlottesville for instance. It’s a city of about 48,000 people and might be perhaps the most progressive (a relative term these days) small city in Virginia, but it has only had a Pride festival for the past seven years even though Pride parades began in 1970 in response to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Travel less than an hour west to Staunton, a city of just over 24,500 people, where it was just 2018 when this city celebrated Pride as a public event for the first time in history. Staunton has traditionally leaned more towards the conservative side, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that this city is in the process of reinventing itself. 


I live in Nelson County, about one hour south of Charlottesville, on 11 acres in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains. It’s a very rural and conservative area. What I’ve found here is that the both/and absolutely exists. My neighbor has a confederate flag sticker on his mailbox, but a few miles down the road the Episcopal Church’s priest is a lesbian who offers a traditional Episcopal service in the morning and a Celtic Evensong and Communion Service in the evening, which is described as a “contemplative service.” Everyone here knows this church will welcome you no matter who you are or what you believe. 


I’m only one of the estimated 222,417 queer adults (about 3.4 percent of the total population) living in Virginia and I’ve personally never felt like there is a solidified or highly organized queer presence here, but I’m watching this slowly change, too. 


For instance, in 2015, Virginia’s first statewide LGBTQ magazine launched, and you are enjoying it right now! Q Virginia magazine gave voice to allies and members of Virginia’s queer community as “a whole” for the first time in the commonwealth’s history. But it was only one year prior to this in 2014 that the Virginia General Assembly finally voted in favor of revising Virginia’s crimes against nature statute to remove the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations. In other words, making love with your same-sex partner was considered a criminal act in Virginia until just five years ago. 


In 2017, Danica Roem became the first openly transgender woman to be elected to the Virginia General Assembly, defeating incumbent delegate Bob Marshall who had gone undefeated for 26 years. When Ms. Roem began her term in the House of Delegates in January 2018, she became the first openly transgender woman to serve in any U.S. state legislature. 


I fully acknowledge that no approach is without its flaws and challenges. But, as I’ve already established, our default “us vs. them” approach hasn’t been working for 13,000 years without tragic loss of life and resources at worst, or humiliation and dehumanization of “the other” at best. So, maybe it’s time to try something different. 


How does a both/and approach work? One word—civility—something that is blatantly absent in the majority of interactions between people these days. I like The Institute for Civility in Government’s definition: 


Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored. And civility begins with us. 


For many years I housesat for a couple who also lived in a more rural area of Virginia. The wife was a Democrat and her husband was a Republican. On occasion we’d all get together for dinner and it wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities that the conversation would turn towards politics. 


Clearly, we were not all on the same ideological page, but we “honored our personal identity, needs and beliefs without degrading anyone else’s,” and we all parted ways still holding each other in high regard even though we were clearly at opposite ends of the belief spectrum on many issues. This is what embracing the both/and through civility can look like. Notice no one’s body had to be buried. 


Civility is a skill that requires intentional practice and, because of this, I would never claim that every (or even most) interactions in Virginia look like the one with my dinner friends because it really depends on who is sitting at the table. I also believe we all have neighbors, friends and community members who likely have very different views than ours. If we chose to look at this reality as an invitation to embrace civility rather than just another fight where we try to “prove I’m right and you’re wrong,” then perhaps all of us together can “heal our insanity” by transforming our historical narrative of us vs. them and give birth, as community, to a “third way of being together.” My hope is that in doing so, we will ensure not only our survival, but the survival of Mother Earth and all of the precious life that she supports. 

Michele Zehr