Civil discourse is defined as “a conversation intended to exchange ideas for the purpose of advancing the participants’ pursuit of the truth about the subject under discussion.” Unfortunately, contemporary discourse falls far below this standard. It might in many cases be described as “demanding that others either embrace a view different from their own or else be denounced as sexist, racist, xenophobic, and bigoted.”
This radical change in the character of discourse is one of the main causes of the division and disharmony everyone laments but few are truly interested in overcoming. It is this radical change that has made people afraid to wear the wrong hat, use the wrong slogan, or speak their minds at public or private functions, lest they be derided, demonized, ridiculed, and even lose their jobs. In short, it is an obstacle to mutual understanding and effective problem solving.
The restoration of civility to modern discourse will require great changes in government, education, and the entertainment and information media. But the more modest efforts of families and friends can provide the impetus for those larger changes.
Here are some steps each of us can take to achieve civility in our smaller groups:
Understand that we do not create truth—we discover it. Unfortunately, we have been led to believe, wrongly, that our opinions comprise truth. As a result, once we form an opinion, we refuse to consider views that challenge it or even to entertain questions that arise in our minds about it. Freeing ourselves from this false idea of truth is essential to the meaningful pursuit of truth.
Remember that our mental processes, like other people’s, are imperfect. We can misperceive, misunderstand, and misjudge. Even when we are spared these mistakes, as time goes by imperfect memories can distort our knowledge. As a result, the viewpoints we hold, even the ones we hold with great conviction, may be false. Acknowledging this possibility provides us the humility needed to remain open to the truth.
Exercise care in researching issues, and in forming viewpoints about them. There are at least two sides (and sometimes more) to every issue. The most fundamental step in addressing any issue is therefore to become knowledgeable about both (all) sides before reaching any conclusions. Doing so will enable us to identify and overcome faults in our thinking and spare ourselves the embarrassment of having others identify them for us.
In discussions with others, try to keep the focus on one question or issue at a time. All too often, discussions will drift from one question to another in rapid succession without coming to mutual understanding about any of them. Answering each question or issue before moving on provides clarity and a sense of progress.
Give more attention to our evidence than to our assertions. Too often modern discussion consists of each person simply repeating his/her assertions over and over. Many people seem to believe that repetition increases credibility and persuasiveness. In reality, it does neither. Discussion bears fruit only when the participants move beyond what they think and explain why they think it.
Be careful not to monopolize the conversation. Letting others have their turns in the discussion is not merely a matter of good manners. It ensures that each person’s thoughts are valued and thus increases the chance of reaching agreement on issues.
Listen as intently to other people’s ideas as we expect them to listen to ours. This is especially important when disagreement among participants is strong—that is, when we are most inclined to resist understanding. The more effectively we listen, the more we will understand the other views, and the more we understand them, the better we will be able to identify their strengths and weaknesses.
Be fair in assessing other people’s views. One of the most unfortunate tendencies in contemporary discourse is to reject every assertion or argument that opposes our views. This tendency is based on the belief that acknowledging any validity or insight in opposing views is a sign of weakness. That belief is mistaken. To admit validity or insight wherever it exists shows integrity and generosity of spirit and invites a similar response from others.
Be prepared to answer questions others ask about our assertions. Many people feel justified in questioning other people’s assertions but take offense when other people question theirs. That feeling arises solely from ego and makes no sense. Assertions are claims that something is so; claims are true or false; therefore, whoever makes an assertion should be willing, and even eager, to demonstrate that it is true.
By following these steps, and encouraging others to follow them, we will contribute to the restoration of civil discourse and help to overcome the division and disharmony that have become all too common in America.
Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved