The Lost Art of Civil Discourse

The rising disregard for civil discourse is felt in general conversations addressing every topic: from education to business to relationships. It is affecting friends, colleagues, family members, strangers and peers. It’s a widespread epidemic, infecting communication and relationships across all of society. If a society cannot communicate effectively, it ceases to advance and cannot even sustain itself. The pervasive lack of civil discourse threatens the viability of our civilization.

A conversation consisting of civil discourse encourages productivity, if not agreement. These kinds of conversations can develop in various ways. In some cases, you may find that you and your interlocutor disagree, but gain a deeper respect and appreciation for each other or each other’s ideas. In other cases, you may come to a clearer understanding of the opposing side. You may even come to partner with your opponents, instead of combatting them, and, together, generate a creative solution to an issue. Whatever its form, civil discourse serves to unite opposing parties in an act of collaboration. It is mutually beneficial to both sides and is indicative of a healthy society built on fundamental principles that override ideologies.

Civil discourse is a complex art form, which takes practice and patience to master. It’s not simply about making the strongest argument but also about presenting it well: it’s a combination of debate, communication and interpersonal interaction. It’s as much about understanding your opponents and engaging with them well as about understanding the topic concerned. No particular topic—political, social or academic—is at fault when conversation breaks down. The problem is how such conversations are conducted. Civil discourse essentially involves a balance between debate and discussion, conflict and collaboration. The absence of civil discourse is due to a breakdown in communication between participating parties.

Dissecting Civil Discourse

One of the first rules of debate is to establish points of agreement, in order to clearly identify and better understand points of divergence. In a debate, two sides oppose each other, but their views are not necessarily incompatible. They already agree that a problem exists and typically desire a solution—they simply disagree on what the solution should be or how it should be reached. While disagreements are inevitable, they can be exploited to allow people to formulate creative solutions through collaboration, rather than leading to destructive consequences as a result of hostility. Hostility increases polarization, which decreases productivity.

One for All and All for One: The Influence of In-groups and Out-groups

One of the reasons for animosity in conversation is the inherent, often unconscious, formation of in-groups and out-groups. Individuals build allegiances with those who share some of their opinions or qualities, while disassociating themselves from others who differ from them. Individuals tend to be more compliant towards members of their in-group and more likely to challenge those of the out-group. Without the security of an in-group, you can find your values and ideas challenged, and this can cause instinctive defensiveness and reactionary aggression. Group associations and responses are usually subtle and automatic. The effects are often unintentional, but they still have consequences. They provoke us versus them dichotomies that induce combativeness and inhibit collaboration.

Group distinctions generate collectivist thinking and increase pressure on the individual. By being part of a group, the individual loses his or her autonomy and becomes an ambassador. Rather than representing herself alone, the person represents the entire group. In a paper for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Joshua Aronson and his colleagues discuss the effect of stereotype threat: “Members of stereotyped groups often feel extra pressure in situations where their behavior can confirm the negative reputation that their group lacks a valued ability.” The researchers observe that individuals take on the responsibility (which they often find stressful) of representing their groups, and this negatively affects their performance. Group and individual representations merge, which “dramatically influences behavior in performance contexts.” Individuals becomes conscious of their roles as ambassadors. They know that their own behavior is affected by general expectations for their collective group. Aronson et al. found that

a stigmatized identity may not be necessary to suffer its effects because, in theory, stereotype threat derives its power from a motive common to all individuals, regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, age, and so on—the motive to sustain a self-image of goodness or competence and of being able to secure important outcomes.

The individuals are responsible for positively representing themselves in order to positively represent their group. Furthermore, their individual representations are evaluated by both their in-groups and their out-groups. The responsibility is tremendous and intimidating. Being observed and judged by others influences behavior. Debates—whether formal presentations or informal social conversations—are often held in public settings and this encourages superficial, sometimes well-meaning but fundamentally dishonest virtue signaling. Virtue signaling occurs when behavior is motivated by appearance as much, if not more, than by sincerity. Groups are not necessarily negative, but neither are they exclusively positive. Sometimes they harm individuals, complicate discourse and inhibit civility.

Switchtracking: Backtracking to the Real Issues

Because civil discourse is predicated on clear communication, another contribution to its breakdown is switchtracking, which is essentially two parties speaking past each other. Switchtracking occurs when both sides are debating similar but separate topics, usually without realizing it. Because each side is addressing different issues with different focal points, conversation usually collapses and confusion and frustration escalate. For example, debates on abortion almost always revolve around switchtracking. Both sides actually tend to agree more than they disagree: they are generally humanely motivated and against violence. However, the two sides vehemently oppose each other because they only acknowledge their differing conclusions and don’t understand the different infrastructures underlying them. Pro-choice advocates typically argue for women’s rights, while pro-life advocates typically argue for the life of the unborn. The real argument is whether or not the unborn is a baby and a human life or a fetus and a bundle of tissues. Pro-life activists accuse pro-choice proponents of murder, while pro-choice activists accuse pro-life proponents of ruining women lives. They are arguing about different issues, from different points of origin. This is why it is of paramount importance to understand the other side, if you want to engage in debate. Your purpose should be not just to defend or attack a position, but to understand the opposition and facilitate effective communication. Often, the issue is not willful blindness or heuristic dogma but sincere miscommunication and misunderstanding. Many debates are more a matter of switchtracking than of fundamental disagreement.

Guilty by Association: Conflating People and Ideas

Civil discourse is supposed to be an exchange of ideas between people: however, one of the major issues is that many cannot tell the difference between ideas and people. This distinction is being gradually dissolved: people’s ideas are becoming their identities. This is a dangerous practice. As Bret Weinstein points out in his interview on the podcast Wrongspeak, “we have to agree that the central principle is inquiry and that the core of inquiry involves disagreement, and, therefore, anybody who’s selling an ideology in which disagreement is punished or discouraged is, in and of themself [sic], challenging the very nature of a university education.” It is not wrong to disagree with ideas: the problem is that ideas and people are becoming inseparable. This hinders free exploration and inquiry. Instead of voicing an idea which merits further investigation, one risks becoming bound to that idea. There ceases to be a process of examination, through which good ideas may emerge from or override bad ones. In the same episode of Wrongspeak, Rebecca Tuval notes:

There’s been a kind of equating of, you know, of somebody’s ideas with the person, and, you know, I think that there’s some truth to that insight—of course many of our ideas are reflective of our particular standpoint and experience of the world, and that’s been a particularly influential line of thought in a lot of feminist work—but I think it gets taken too far in assuming that any idea expressed is always indicative of somebody’s particular social upbringing or identity.

When people and ideas become indistinguishable, disagreements become dangerous. Hostility towards a thought becomes animosity towards a human, which is destructive and divisive instead of constructive and collaborative.

While discourse between opponents is still very common—both online and in person—civility, the feature that makes discussions productive, is receding. Polite discourse is being replaced by aggressive argumentation; open discussion and an exchange of ideas for the purposes of learning are being replaced by combative debates which discourage collaboration. When conversations lack cordiality, not only are they futile, but they are counterproductive, since they produce a polarizing effect that degrades discourse or shuts down the possibility of it altogether. Consequently, discussions do not conclude by resolving issues. Instead, they result in tense frustration, heightened animosity and provide a distraction from the original issue. Whatever the topic, civil discourse is necessary.

Reconstructing Civil Discourse

Civil discourse requires focus, intention, skill, practice, creativity and effort. It is as much about interpersonal relationships and communication as it is about arguing. In fact, it shouldn’t be about winning an argument but, rather, about engaging in a constructive conversation. This fundamentally changes the purpose of the interaction. It shifts the focus from differences and arguments (negative) to solutions and collaboration (positive). Recognizing the commonalities between yourself and your opponent and acknowledging your shared desire for a solution helps the conversation stay on track, instead of switchtracking. It also leads to a clearer understanding of what the issue actually is and where the disagreements arise.

In such cases, if there is an argument, it’s an argument about ideas, not a war between people. It’s important to be aware of the power of in-group–out-group dichotomies, in order to avoid their perils. Groups are very influential. They can replace independent thinking with collectivism. They can cause widespread insincerity and extremism, which result in hostility and divisiveness. Groupthink can lead to the emergence of fierce tribalism, in which loyalty overrides logic, ideas become identities and each side begins thinking of the other as the enemy. When arguments become personal, they cease to be productive.

Civil discourse is about the positive manipulation of differences. It includes both individual perspectives and collective solutions. It involves a union of individuals, each offering his unique insights, and leads to the cumulative advancement of society. Discourse is a form of interpersonal communication and a type of relationship. The state of discourse civil in a given society offers an indication of the health of that society and suggests a prognosis for its future. If civil discourse is a lost art, that is a sign of a failing society.

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  1. There are conversational virtues. Unfortunately they tend to get confused with civility as politeness, as a uniform set of rules with a goal of changing individual minds. The minimal constraints for civility are tolerance, to merely to listen and engage when it might be fruitful. Skepticism about whether any discussion will be fruitful tends to presuppose a simplistic model of persuasion under which the clouds clear, the sun rises, we arrive at a common understanding and maybe even split the difference. Conceived as a social activity where stock in ideas goes up and down with our engagement, ridicule, use and abuse, it’s a process bound up with how our minds process dissonant information, try out, think and rethink. So even if you have the better argument it’s irrelevant if it hasn’t been inducted into that process.

    In a social model there’s also room for different types of engagement. Activists are good at making you feel uncomfortable, not so much persuasion; and yet they play a valuable role. There are of course people who make the world worse but civilization doesn’t need them if institutions enhance more productive elements. Evangelism for civic virtues is fine and good but discourse is just a vehicle for a messy agglomeration of ideas and interests that are often in conflict.

  2. I think the biggest false assumption in this analysis is that there is a shared desire for a solution in most disagreements. I more pessimistically think that humanity is brimming with inherently, fundamentally incompatible preferences that actually are zero-sum by nature. The source of this zero-sumness is often that people have other-regarding preferences that aren’t very liberal. But those preferences are still real preferences, and people can’t be argued out of them. The result is real, inevitable conflict, not just miscommunication. In some ways, open hostility is more honest than the veneer of civil discourse, at least when the underlying preferences of different sides are actually incompatible.

  3. unfortunately. the ideological extremes abhor the humility necessary to engage in civil discourse. they’ve learned to view it as a weakness of character, and one that puts them at undue risk of the thing they fear most in this world: being convinced of an idea they don’t already hold. such a thing is a tremendous blow to the ego, so the ego must be fortified at all costs.

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