The Dying Art of Civil Discourse

We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.

As a former Journalism major who’s constantly balancing perpetual laziness with a desire to stay informed, I follow a plethora of news outlets on social media. And consequently (maybe deservedly), I’m starting to become increasingly jaded with the world.

When I see a news story on social media, I first peruse the comments section to get a general feel for the conversation happening on a public scale, which is fascinating to me: for the first time in history, billions of humans have access to this amazing worldwide outlet through which we can voice our opinions, ideas and thoughts about a wide assortment of anything!

But while this practice gives me the power to gauge public leanings toward any given topic, it’s also begun to highlight a deep, subtle issue that really, really, really needs to be addressed:

We’re giving up on talking to each other (or completely forgetting how).

It’s painful to watch how quickly a legitimate and intelligent discussion can devolve into name-calling and childish barbs, completely derailing any productive potential.

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“well at least im not a f**king f*ggot b*tch so shut up” – real statement we’ve all seen online at some point

Maybe it’s the boldness that stems from the anonymity of being a voice on the Internet. Maybe it’s the inherent inability to hear a tone of voice or see emotions while reading someone’s words. Maybe we’re too lazy to construct a well thought-out response when faced with dissent. Whatever the reason, we’re reaching a point where people are losing the ability to have an open-minded, intelligent dialogue about anything even remotely controversial.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: The art of civil discourse is quickly dying out in favor of the cheap satisfaction derived from juvenile insults and sarcastic emojis.

Engaging with someone in a discussion regarding any issue upon which you fundamentally disagree can open up new possibilities for learning and personal growth.

It’s not easy, especially for those who are used to voicing their beliefs in an echo chamber of assent and agreement — until a few years ago, I didn’t understand the difference between civil discourse and a flat-out argument (in fact, I might never have really grasped the concept of a “healthy debate” if it weren’t for my significant other being patient and informative with me during political discussions, even when I insisted on being angry and hostile… Shout-out to him).

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I could do without the unnecessary comma after ‘argument’ — but hey, I’ll take my wisdom however I can get it. #grammarsnob

How to Practice Civil Discourse

This is difficult stuff. I’ve only just begun my personal journey in the art of civil discourse, and the fact that I understand these skills doesn’t mean I successfully practice them. But maybe if we put some effort into this, we can hone the skills necessary for keeping civil discourse and healthy debates alive.

Honestly, a more appropriate title for this would be:

How to Debate Without Losing All Your Friends

Take time to truly understand the facts and figures that support your point (and ensure that these statistics come from a reputable source). To be clear, no one will take you seriously if your cited source is a meme you found on Facebook (nor should they). ENSURE that these statistics are coming from a reputable source.

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Pictured: SCIENCE.

Don’t pigeonhole. To generalize people is to introduce ignorance and disrespect into your argument. There are a variety of connotations associated with calling someone “racist,” “sexist,” “Liberal” or “Conservative” during a debate, and doing this is guaranteed to undermine any constructive or intelligent points you may have made. And on that note…

Debate to elevate truth, not a political agenda. Fellow blogger John Reid illustrates this nicely in his post, 5 Tips for A Healthy Debate:

“For example, Ralph observes a debate on Socialism v. Capitalism. Ralph knows nothing about economics. But because Ralph is a Republican he automatically jumps to the side of Capitalism because that’s where his conservative platform is. Ralph rattles off some jargon on numbers, ethics and Ronald Reagan but given his illiteracy on the matter he has made a fool of himself. Now what has happened? He has gained no tread and his goal of advocating his political party has back-fired on him. Now his opponent has nothing to argue with because all that Ralph has delivered was inert material. Ralph has also delivered much material that can be argued against him even though it may have nothing to do with the original issue.”

Strive for understanding. Of course, the prerequisite to this point is stopping to listen; too many people only read their opponent’s response to cherry-pick words and phrases that serve their own argument. It’s critical to try and truly find meaning, or even the tiniest bit of common ground, in your opponent’s explanations.

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Concede generously when the situation calls for it. That is, if you come to a point where you truly don’t know the answer, or your opponent has made a good point, don’t be afraid to give ground and admit it. After all, this is the whole end-goal of a debate—to learn something! The worst action at this critical point (which most people do for lack of argument) is to desperately deflect to an unrelated point. Again, to quote Reid, any worthy opponent “will respect for you saying “I don’t know” because it shows that you are more willing to keep the discussion on track rather than develop some fabricated response to the very question that your opponent trumped you with. We fear surrender but surrender may actually strengthen our position.”

Remember that your “opposition” isn’t really opposition at all; he/she is a fellow human being who cares enough about this topic to address it on a public forum, just like you. Doing this can help you stick to all of the points above.

For the first time in history, we have the ability to research anything, speak with anyone, say virtually anything we want in a space where hundreds/thousands/millions of people can hear. We have technology.

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“WE HAVE TECHNOLOGY” (It’s quite possible that there’s a fitting Spongebob meme for every aspect of the human condition).

But, of course, that power can become a double-edged sword very quickly.

Interacting on such a public forum simultaneously places a tremendous amount of responsibility upon everyone to maintain a high standard for these conversations—sometimes higher than what might seem necessary. The hostile environment we see today is the result of settling for anything less.

Recently, a close family member very seriously informed me that “even the dumbest [members of a certain political party] are still smarter than any [members of the opposing political party].”

Let the ignorance of that statement sink in for a moment.

This otherwise rational, intelligent human being truly believes that political party affiliations depend on intelligence rather than differing beliefs on a wide spectrum of social, economic, and political issues. He believes that smart people are [members of a certain political party] and dumb people are [members of the opposing political party] – thereby making him better than anyone who politically identifies as a [member of a certain political party].

The thing is, this person’s political affiliation doesn’t matter because I see these lazy, baseless generalizations coming from supporters of both political parties.

Instead of utilizing rational thought, we generalize enormous groups of people into ridiculous stereotypes because it’s easy and (I guess?) makes us feel better about ourselves. Rather than focusing on the ideals that connect us, we embrace ignorance and bigotry. We perpetuate an “us versus them” mentality and blame it on “them.” Our current joke of an election is a direct reflection of this ugliness.

And it kills me because we’re better than this.

Not to be repetitive from my last post, but Harry Potter is everything, and the best way I can think to end this rambling post is to quote a most magical Headmaster:

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We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

– Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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