On Civil Discourse


A recent online exchange with a friend whose political views differ from mine in various respects has served to bring into better focus how and why those differences might be better addressed by all parties.  I don’t expect this post to be surprisingly insightful in its particulars, but perhaps by bringing the pieces together and showing their relationships it might help understand why people may hold different perspectives and beliefs on contentious issues, and might suggest ways to at least respectfully disagree.

Discussions (and arguments) frequently begin with the simple (but often unasked) question of “is there a problem here?”  One side of many an argument begins with a facile assumption that “clearly you can see” there is a problem, while the other side truthfully responds “huh?”  Most discussions over issues seen as a problem by one person might better be initiated by asking “are you aware of” or “have you thought about” or “where do you stand on” the matter.

To carry on a civil discourse about most matters requires the person who sees something as an issue or problem to clearly identify the problem, why it is a problem, and specify or outline its major characteristics.  No, you don’t need a spreadsheet or Power Point presentation, but generalizations or vague statements usually result in a significant waste of time trying to clarify what is meant.  If clarification of a potential issue is your objective then fine, but state that objective up front.

A follow-on to the issue of whether there is a problem is the question “does it apply to me, or is it unambiguously your problem, not mine?”  A sub question for those whose initial response might be “nope, not my problem” is to ask “is the problem you identify something that I should be concerned about?”  And lastly, “can I add to the discussion in a way that might help in its resolution?”  The answer to these questions requires a clear identification of impacts on the parties involved.

Then there is the matter of intent.  Argument for argument’s sake is the hallmark of agitators and online trolls, and the absolute best response is to shun them completely – no response.  Nada.  Zilch.  Nope, not going there.  This matter of intent can be more subtle however.  When it becomes clear the argument is based on differences in underlying values or beliefs that are not subject to logical reasoning then again the best response is to withdraw, preferably politely (and see the next paragraphs).

The above paragraph suggests if the purpose of the discussion or argument is to convince the opposing party of the “rightness” of your position, then all too often the outcome will be increasing division and acrimony – nobody wants to be “wrong” and will defend the rightness of their position regardless of evidence to the contrary.  On the other hand if the intent is an honest effort to identify potential solutions (or even that of better understanding the problem) then engaging in the discussion begins to make sense.

I have noted too many (actually almost all) discussions of problems, and especially those that devolve into arguments, find people on opposing sides using different sources to bolster their stances.  This actually begins with the initial statement of the problem – are you independently identifying the problem based on your own observations and thinking, or are you passing on what someone else has said or thought.  If the latter, then it is important to state that up front.

Most arguments involve making statements that are claimed to be “true”.  Unfortunately the very concept of truth has recently come under attack from almost all sides, especially anything that involves ideology.  While many ideologies are fundamentally based on values and beliefs that are either a) inviolate regardless of evidence to the contrary (e.g., encased in “logic tight compartments”), or b) slippery to the point of impossible to grasp (i.e., beyond rational comprehension), others are concepts that have been carefully constructed over time with claims to legitimacy based on evidence and/or expertise.

Of course, both evidence and expertise can be questioned, but in extremis such questioning can itself become one of the bigger barriers to finding common ground on which to carry on civil discourse regarding the topic.

Basically what the above three paragraphs suggest is the importance of agreeing on what constitutes a legitimate basis for taking a particular stance or making a statement deemed to be true, even if only for purposes of the discussion.  What evidence from what sources will be considered legitimate?  What expert qualifications are acceptable?  What news sources will be taken as either objective or reasonably unbiased, or if biased does everyone recognize and accept the bias exists?  If there is no agreement on what is considered legitimate then further discussion is going to be fruitless and frustrating for all involved.

Drawing inferences and conclusions regarding someone else’s values, beliefs, experiences, statements, or stances is an incredibly bad thing to do … unless you are attempting to clarify uncertainty in your own mind regarding those values, beliefs, experiences, statements, or stances.  In general, making a statement such as “you seem to think/believe/value …” or “you have never …” or “what do you know about …” are almost always seen as attacks by that other person.  If the discussion is going to advance beyond what you think the other is thinking then the better approach is often a question such as “are you saying …” or “do I understand you to mean …”, or a statement of the form “what I am understanding you to say is …” or “what I think you are saying is …”.  Such an approach permits either clarification or agreement.

What about boundaries?  Most issues are rarely universal in scope.  Generalities by definition may not be applicable to specific circumstances or situations, and vice versa.  Those latter are often bounded by time, location, participants, and other criteria.  Knowing what those boundaries and criteria are can prevent a discussion going “off the rails” and into an unrelated wilderness, leaving everybody either lost or exhausted.  Two of the most irritating tactics used by those who like to endlessly debate a topic (any topic) are:  first, to lead their opponent into making a specific statement about a specific issue then generalizing it to an absurdity; second, to take a general statement and apply it to an equally absurd specific instance.  Both tactics are inherently argumentative and ultimately render the discussion useless.

I entitled this post as “On Civil Discourse” and I am well aware there are volumes written about the strategy and tactics of argumentation.  But in my view once discourse descends into argument there is little to be gained by continuing.  My consulting business name is Solutions Enterprises, Inc., and reflects my focus on finding effective ways to solve problems.  In business many of those problems are often seen as either intractable or unpalatable, and viable solutions out of reach.  Alternative perspectives are often required but their very nature as “alternative” solutions weigh against their adoption.  This is the crux of the matter in most discussions and arguments as well – nobody wants to abandon thoughts, values, and positions that in many cases have been built over a lifetime.  Yet the mark of the truly successful person is their ability to change when necessary.  It is often painful, but equally as often necessary.

Christmas Letter 2018

So … here is the problem:  do you take the Christmas letters I put out (I do these annually, but this is the first on my website … so deal with it) as real or fake news?  Ah, the challenges that question poses – real or fake, and how is it possible, what are the procedures, what sources do you consult, to actually make that determination?  And, how does that question relate to Christmas?

Christmas as a holiday event is unquestionably real … in this day and age … in certain parts of the world … as observed by specific cultures … in a variety of forms … spanning various time periods… well, okay, “real” is always subject to interpretation, but most people do recognize its salient characteristics.  However, Christmas sub stories are suspect to varying degrees, ranging from totally discounted as frivolous myth based on pagan practices, through a pleasant diversion from day-to-day routines, to an awe inspiring celebration of God appearing on earth in human form.

Whatever your take on Christmas, at some point you had to make a decision regarding how you personally were going to deal with its practice, and that decision was schooled by family, friends, faith, culture, and even things like finances, relationships, politics … and many other factors.

Fake or real?  Knowing there are falsehoods, even blatant lies, about certain aspects of Christmas, do you nevertheless embrace it because it is focused on supporting positive behaviors?  If you see that lies and deliberate misrepresentations engender expressions of love, fellowship, charity, happiness – does that make those lies and falsehoods okay?  That question and your answer is very much more important than some kind of simplistic intellectual exercise – it invokes that old high school quandary of determining whether or not the ends justify the means used to acquire them, and your feelings on the matter determine your behavior in ways that can result in life or death for others … and perhaps even yourself.

Yeah, I know.  Christmas is not supposed to be a time for dealing with heavy philosophical questions … or real world circumstances/politics … or even thinking.  Christmas is all about happiness, joy, and good feelings.  Christmas lets the positive emotions out.  That is a good thing, right?  And it therefore is okay to be “creative” in how we interpret and explain and practice Christmas, right?

To be clear, my personal opinion is somewhat convoluted.  I am all in favor of myth, magic, and fairy tales so long as they are understood to be myth, magic, and fairy tales.  There is a process called “maturation” – a growing into maturity – that at certain stages benefits from belief in things that cannot be proven.  Creativity is all about imagining, about the wonder and awe to be found in fantasy.  So much of what we have today was founded in fantastic wondering and discovery of that which could only be seen in the mind’s eye.  Fiction is often about uncovering mysteries, and occasionally those mysteries lead us to travel paths previously unknown, and to uncover truths previously thought impossible.

I am also of the opinion that maturity is a never ending process, and to discount the fantastic is to unreasonably limit the scale and scope of our progress.  This in no way rejects the lessons of experience, the findings of experimentation and science, the process of reasoning and logic, and the role of “facts” in guiding our travels through life.  However, this also means the answer to the ends/means question is clearly “it depends.”

Unfortunately, the “it depends” answer requires explicating exactly what “it depends” depends upon given explicitly identified ends, which almost always leads to discussions about values, and consequently morality.  My sole statement regarding our current political climate in this Christmas letter is to note we are presently enmeshed in an increasingly foggy (I would prefer “smoggy”) state of trying to unravel the deliberate, tortuous, intermixing of fact and fallacy by those whose expressed purpose is personal gain, and this seriously violates my personal values and beliefs in the very sentiments that should be foundational to both the Christmas season as well as guiding my daily life throughout the year.  In this case the ends are at best suspect, illogical if not irrational, poorly justified, and therefore the means cannot be defended as either necessary nor sufficient … nor ethical, nor moral, nor even legal.

YMMV, as always.

So … Here I Am

How can one person impact others on a scale beyond that person’s immediate vicinity?

In one sense your mere presence impacts the entire world – an aspect of chaos theory enables the idea that you occupy space which therefore cannot be occupied by anything else, with the consequence necessarily rippling out to affect the entire universe (known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”).  I bet you did not know you were that influential!

In more practical terms, your impact or influence on others is a consequence of you taking some sort of action, such as touching, talking, writing, or otherwise making others consciously aware of your presence.  Of course, this presumes you are interested in being noticed in some way … positively, I would hope.

Why would anyone not wish to be noticed?  On the one hand, mostly out of fear – fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, fear of offending someone, fear of criticism whether justified or not, and so on.

On the other hand, why would anyone wish to be noticed?  At one extreme we have pathological narcissists.  Excluding those disturbed and warped souls, a desire to be noticed often boils down to one of two fundamental reasons.  The first rather common reason is possessing a set of values that one believes should be evangelized, if not universally then at least to a broader range of people than one might otherwise be able to reach.

The second less common reason is found in those who are reasonably good at inductive reasoning – the ability to figure out general principles, given specific instances.  Inductive reasoning in turn confers on the person so skilled, a better than average ability to predict outcomes, since outcomes are frequently sensitive to and dependent on initial conditions – i.e., those experiences one is subjected to in the “real” world.

In my particular case it turns out I seem to have a somewhat better than average ability to reason inductively, which has resulted in the development of a set of values that I do believe ought to be promoted more broadly.

So there we are, and here I am.