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What Does Civil Discourse Sound Like?

January 24, 2011

What Does Civil Discourse Sound Like?

Since the shooting rampage in Tucson on January 8th, calls for civility in our political dialogue have been all over the airwaves. It was a major theme in President Obama’s address at the memorial service in Tucson. He said:

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

I believe most reasonable people would agree with President Obama’s statement.  So, what is civil discourse?

Jeffry Slee has this to say about civil discourse in a Newsroom Magazine article:

“Finding a uniform definition for civil discourse is similar to the old folktale about three blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time and attempt to learn about it by touch alone. The experience of each is unique because each touches a different part of the elephant. Each defines a portion of the pachyderm but none are able to describe its totality. As with the blind men sorting out the physical world, we too are challenged defining the subjective one. However, most of the descriptions center on an engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding. Done well, it can drive to insight that is actionable in the context of furthering individual dignity and improving society.”

Perhaps it’s easier to begin by saying what civil discourse is not. It is not demonizing your opponent. It is not blaming or accusing the other side. It is not making condescending remarks. It is not assigning motives. It is not spinning or misrepresenting facts. It is not telling half-truths or saying things that intentionally create a false impression or paint a distorted picture. It is not about creating gridlock. It is not comparing the opposition to nefarious figures or regimes. It’s not disparaging people who disagree with you. It is not duplicitous.

Kenneth J. Gergen, a psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College, describes civil discourse as “the language of dispassionate objectivity.” He emphasizes that it requires respect of the other participants, and it neither diminishes the others’ moral worth, nor questions their good judgment; it avoids hostility, direct antagonism, or excessive persuasion; it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participants’ experiences.

Diane Rehm, the NPR journalist offered her definition of civil discourse during a program at Oberlin College. She said it referred to “our ability to have conversation about topics about which we disagree, and our ability to listen to each others’ perspectives.”

With all this in mind, I suggest that civil discourse, in its best sense, has nine characteristics. It is:

  • Objective: Is free of personal feelings, self interest, interpretations, bias, or prejudice. Basing arguments on facts rather than assumptions, hearsay, or opinions. Identifying and considering all the available relevant facts and information, not just a subset that supports one’s predisposition or original position.
  • Honest: Is truthful, principled, credible, and fair.
  • Dispassionate: Is impartial and calm.
  • Conversation that promotes true understanding: Enhances discernment and familiarity with topics, broadens or deepens knowledge, improves information or data comprehension.
  • Listening actively to fully understand: Entails paying attention and truly hearing what others are saying; then checking to ensure accurate comprehension. Not listening simply to rebut.
  • Constructive: Focuses on improving and building, working toward actionable solutions, being helpful and positive. Not tearing others or their ideas down; finding common ground and expanding it.
  • Mutual respect: Conveys reciprocal esteem, honoring the dignity of others and their positions. Speaking in a courteous and considerate tone.
  • Modesty and humility: Displays openness to other perspectives, moderation, and humbleness.
  • Appreciation for the experiences of others: Acknowledges that we see events based on our own life experiences, cultures, positions, responsibilities, and unique perspectives. Therefore our perceptions of reality may differ, which does not mean that one is necessarily right or wrong. There may be multiple truths and they need to be recognized and processed respectfully.

If we can weave these nine characteristics into our own conversations with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, managers, and everyone with whom we interact, we will be promoting civil discourse by our example. Hopefully, our national, state, and municipal leaders can do the same and become models for us all.

Incivility says more about the people displaying it than it does about those to whom their remarks are directed. Civility is a value we can embrace and integrate into all our discussions, no matter how strongly we feel about something. It strengthens our own credibility and builds trust.

Steve Weitzenkorn

If you like this post you may also like “What Happened to Intellectual Honesty.”

Visit our new website: Take the FREE Guiding Values Exercise. Identify your most important values.

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