Civility in Public and Private Discourse

In 1997, Guy and I wrote a well-received essay on civility which started “the increasingly vocal campaign for for civility in public discourse reflects an understandable and widespread frustration with the current tenor of political debate.” Wow!  Little did we know how much worse it could get! 

But it certainly has. A distressing proportion of political talk in 2017 includes name-calling, hateful rhetoric, and a complete refusal to listen to or think about the interests, needs, or beliefs of “the other side.”  As our partisan divide grows ever-deeper, advocates on both sides are simultaneously pleading for civility and going for the kill. I laughed, and moaned, at a recent Facebook post made by a friend of mine, calling for “civility” in our discourse–insisting that people should “Just shut the f*** up.”  Really?  I didn’t ask him what he thought “civility” meant–but I should have.

So what DOES “civility” mean?  Well, it certainly means avoiding the use of swear words and other inflammatory language.  It means treating opponents–even those you staunchly disagree with — with respect.  It means listening to them, and seriously thinking about what they have to say before one either rejects it or accepts it. It means treating people the way you want to be treated–even IF they don’t treat you that way in return. 

Why do this?  What is the alternative?  We can call people names, we can refuse to listen to their arguments. We can dig in our heals and refuse to listen or compromise, insisting we are right, and it is “our way or the highway.”  What will that get us?  It only digs our divide deeper and it makes it all the less likely we will prevail. People don’t listen to those who call them names.  They certainly don’t change their beliefs or their behavior.  Do you think someone is “deplorable” or “hateful?”  Want them to stay that way–or get even worse?  Call them “deplorable” or “hateful!” –It will certainly reinforce those behaviors!

On the other hand, engaging in disarming behaviors:

  • where you are” nicer” than the other side expects you to be,
  • where you listen when others haven’t,
  • when you exhibit a willingness to work with the other side to try to meet their legitimate needs (though not their illegitimate demands)

creates what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.”  The other side has stereotyped you and “your type” as stupid and evil and wrong and nasty–but here you are seeming really reasonable, and intelligent, and friendly.  So what do they do?  Well sometimes, they’ll still ignore you or dismiss you, believing your behavior to be “a trick,” but sometimes you break through and cause a re-examination of their negative stereotypes. When that happens, your conflict with them can begin to de-escalate. 

We do not want to imply that “being nice” is all that is needed to get “the other side” to agree with you or to reach win-win agreements.  Many of our deep differences are based on fundamental moral differences and identity issues that people do not compromise about  So conflict is still inevitable.  But it doesn’t have to be destructive.

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