Civil Discourse Defined
The obvious New Year’s Resolution for every individual and every community is simple: reestablish civil discourse. Of course, the word reestablish implies civil discourse actually existed at some point in time. Perhaps we should consider defining civil discourse first. Our challenge is to define it and remain civil in our discourse defining it.
Let’s begin with the word civil. A definition from the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary: “adhering to the norm of polite social intercourse, civil relations”. The definition identifies a key word: polite.
Webster defines polite as “1. showing good manners toward others, as in behavior or speech; courteous; a polite reply.” In fact, the rest of the definition for polite reveals the real obstacle to civil discourse. “2. refined or cultured: polite society. 3. of a refined or elegant kind: polite learning.”
Have you identified the obstacle to civility? Not yet? Let’s examine another word that is implied by the definition of polite. Consider “elite”.
Elite: “ 1. the choice or best of a group, class, or the like. 2. persons of the wealthiest class. 3. a group of persons exercising authority within a larger group.”
Since tradition has always associated polite society with the social elite, civil behavior in the lower and middle class is sometimes considered a betrayal of trust within those groups. Individuals with a strong liberal arts education become persona non grata in their familial groups. Hence, civil discourse is dismissed, and loud, vulgar banter is respected.
Sadly, the “elite” have embraced hostile rhetoric to show they are empathetic to the socially and politically disenfranchised.
Emotional Baiting and Incivility
Consider the following exchange with respect to a statement by an elected official who does not support his party’s position on challenging the electoral vote in the 2020 presidential election
| Comment: I quit the Republican Party after 60+ years. I have a lot of problems with you, ______, but thank you and stand tall. Honesty is hard to find in government today. |
Reply A: Wait, did I miss it? He was honest somewhere in there???
Reply B to Reply A: what was there to be honest about? What he did was act as a professor and point out why what is happening should not be happening. I suppose he could have toned it down to what? The age 5 level?
The person posting Reply A challenges the honesty of the elected official without identifying a specific statement by the elected official. This person also disparages the person posting the Comment; a comment which merely acknowledges agreement with the elected official’s statement. Reply A baits a response from Reply B which muddies the exchange with a less than polite “age 5 level” reaction to Reply A. These attacks undermine the civility of the exchange.
Emotional baiting poisons any discourse. Any civil discourse objectives are eliminated by emotional diatribe. If feelings are more important than reasoned argument, civil dialogue is impossible.
Keys to civil discourse are based on staying focused on the issue and displaying genuine respect for all participants in dialogue or written correspondence. Objective facts and truth are essential to meaningful discourse. Emotional, editorial outbursts make meaningful discourse impossible. The obsession with “the show” and “being a celebrity” requires a flashy presentation that relies on clever one-liners to “be funny” and fit in with a preferred social group.
Another key to civil discourse is research on the issues to be discussed. Research requires reading and reflection. Scanning media sources for Jeopardy-like soundbites is not research. Informed opinions require deeper understanding of the complex issue of interest (there are no simple issues). Unless the issue is the focus of a person’s profession, the depth of knowledge is restricted by time commitments elsewhere. In the words of a street-wise cop, “Man’s got to know his limitations” [name that movie cop]; review the movie and consider the impact of extreme incivility.
Food for Thought
As you reflect on the social and political chaos of 2020, ask yourself: how do we reestablish civil discourse in 2021? My approach has been to spend more time in prayer and meditation. There is no way to maintain emotional control without the grace of God to support my efforts for self-discipline. You may find the following prayer, which I say every day, helpful. It is A Student’s Prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas.
| Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your light penetrate the darkness of my understanding. |
Take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of sin and ignorance. Give me a keen understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.
Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.
Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in the completion.
I ask this through Christ our Lord
As always, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”