Recently, the small community of Ventura,
California was divided against itself. Insults
were hurled. Reputations were tarnished.
Names were called. “It was vitriolic,” says
Grand Master Russ Charvonia, who is a resi-
dent there. “And it was over whether or not
to build a Walmart.”
The same thing happens every day in
communities, and lodges, across the coun-
try. When a topic is emotionally charged,
the first casualty can be common courtesy.
Charvonia hopes to find a better way.
Last February, he presented an idea at the
Conference of Grand Masters of North
America: that Masons lead a movement
for civility. He gained the support of grand
lodges across the U.S. and Canada. This team
is now in the process of collaborating with
the Nationality Civility Center, and has begun
developing tools to help lodges and communities approach divisive topics with a little
more empathy, and a lot more decency.
Hot topics, cool heads
At the Grand Family orientation in August,
Charvonia presented one such tool to his
officers, leadership training facilitators, and
Lodge Support Committee members.
When the officers and families filtered into the meeting room
that day and took their seats in the audience, they saw five
chairs in a semi-circle facing back at them. Two representatives
from Arizona State University were waiting.
The brothers were about to take part in a training led by
the University’s Institute for Civil Dialogue. As the Institute
describes it, the training is intended to help participants face
“hot topics” with “cool heads.” It is structured as a moderated
discussion, which centers on a prepared statement about a
The chairs in the semi-circle each represent a position: “strongly
disagree,” “somewhat agree,” “neutral/undecided,” “somewhat
agree,” or “strongly agree.” The volunteers in these chairs each
have the chance to express their viewpoints in an opening statement and then in an ensuing dialogue. An impartial facilitator
keeps the discussion moving and clarifies important points. A
fact-checker is on hand to immediately confirm or refute any
statements offered as facts. The audience’s job is to observe, ask
questions, and reflect on their own reactions. All told, the discussion and debriefing for one topic takes about an hour.
The first topic at the Grand Family orientation was on the
subject of school vouchers (although any divisive topic would
have served). Five individuals took a seat in the semi-circle
of chairs, which had been scooted so close together that participants’ knees were almost touching. Before they began, the
facilitator reminded them of the rules of conduct: Be passionate
but not hostile. Watch your body language. Separate fact from
feeling. Listen carefully and empathetically.
Of course, some of this may sound familiar. Masons have always
promised to approach differences of opinion with respect and
cooperation. Grand Chaplain Gary Silverman, who was among
the five position chairs, calls this the “Mason switch.” “The
minute someone says to you, ‘That’s not very Masonic,’ you
kinda go ‘Whoah,’ and put on your go-to-meeting clothes,”
Silverman says. “A switch gets flipped.”
IN A TIME WHEN DISCUSSION
OFTEN DEVOLVES INTO
LEADERS TRAIN FOR CIVILITY
by Laura Normand