Salvaging Civil Discourse

Salvaging Civil Discourse

Over the past several years, it has become increasingly difficult for Americans to engage civilly with one another regarding the difficult political issues that permeate our society. In lieu of civil discussion, people are quick to raise their voices in anger or shut down difficult conversations when others think differently than them. Commentators and concerned onlookers consistently offer two solutions to this problem: empathy and humility.

Arthur Brooks, Colleen Shogan, and Neta Crawford propose that empathy should be employed in political dialogue because it can defuse tension between groups with different political opinions and allow politicians to work with their political foils. On this site, Timothy Philbin argued that increased humility will help rehabilitate public discussion. If we are humbler and recognize that perhaps we’re not always as smart and right as we think we are—if we acknowledge that other people may have thought of things that we did not think of—then perhaps we can remember to engage civilly with those with whom we disagree. These suggestions on empathy and humility have merit. At the moment, I am not interested in providing an in-depth analysis of them. Instead, I’d like to add two new ideas to our discussion about how best to salvage civil political dialogue in our nation.

In addition to the empathy and humility arguments, two other arguments can be made for what people can do to engage civilly with one another: a civic argument and a self-interested argument. We have a civic duty to engage in civil discussion because failure to do so will inevitably impede our ability to confront the problems that face us. More selfishly, we should decide to engage in civil dialogue because we are most persuasive when we do so. Hardly anyone has ever been effectively persuaded by another person yelling at them. If you want someone to accept your point of view, you must engage with them civilly, lest you entrench them in their own opinions and make them angrier.

The argument that we should embrace civil discussion in the interest of solving the problems before us in the most effective way possible may seem abstract to average individuals talking politics. However, in our democratic republic, public policy cannot advance efficiently when both major political parties are polarized and incapable of engaging in civil discussion. Although many people today expect politicians to compromise, these people only call for compromise when their political preferences are advanced—a phenomenon that has caused increased gridlock over the past two decades. To help resolve our inability to come together and arrive at reasoned compromises, and to ensure that the political process works for all legitimate groups involved, we should remember to engage civilly. Instead of perpetuating an environment where we prioritize our personal views over the views of others, we should create a system that allows for disagreement between groups without the fear of being torn down by others. Society often glorifies a political fight, portraying the one who yells the loudest as the victor of the verbal joust. But as members of the same country and communities, we should view disagreement not as a joust to be won by one side or another, but rather as an opportunity to discern the best way forward together. This does not mean we should talk dispassionately or avoid being angry at the current state of affairs. It means instead that we should remember that we stand the greatest chance of fixing the problems before us when we can talk civilly and reasonably about them.

Both the teachings of Jesus and the ideas of the 18th century English statesman Edmund Burke suggest that we can change this culture of verbal jousting through individual acts of civil discussion. In the parable of the mustard seed found in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches that one small action can compound to create larger change just as faith the size of a small mustard seed can grow to move mountains. Burke’s thinking mirrors that of Jesus because Burke believed that individual acts of care between family members eventually leads to the entire body politic caring for each other and working to secure the public good. Following these ideas, individual engagement in civil dialogue could provide an example for others to act the same, leading to whole communities fulfilling their civic duty by engaging civilly in reasoned discussion aimed at maximizing our common good. In the absence of blind anger and vitriol, civil, well-reasoned dialogue will help break political gridlock and improve the tenor of public conversation.

Despite the merits of the civic duty argument, it is possible that people may forget or refuse to engage civilly with one another if they are engaged in an impassioned political argument. If this is the case, one can salvage civil discussion by remembering self-interestedly that speaking civilly holds the greatest chance of convincing someone else of one’s own position. To be effective in persuasion, it is best not to speak hastily before properly considering what to say and how to say it. This allows people to think more intentionally. In doing so, their words will not fuel an aggressive reaction to counter a statement made to them. Instead, people will be able to think critically and craft a methodical response to another’s critique of their views. This will help advance their position without increasing the level of aggression or animosity in the conversation. In this way, people will not be on the defensive when countering another’s response, allowing a fruitful intellectual conversation to develop.

I do not think that there is a simple way to encourage civil political conversations. The arguments I make in this article aim to serve as guides on how to decrease the frequency of hateful or needlessly angry political dialogue. If you have a passion for working toward the common good in your community, put the civic duty argument into practice and create a space where all legitimate points of view can be shared. Perhaps you are a methodical thinker. If so, practice the skills of effective persuasion by intentionally choosing your words to defuse an angry political discussion. In the midst of a political environment where angry, intolerant, and sometimes even hate-driven discourse is expected between groups with different political opinions, embracing the arguments I’ve made can help make civil dialogue possible.    

(Overhead photo: Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn)    

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