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.

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