What does a civil conversation on a complex, contentious issue sound like? How does it unfold or progress from start to finish? Is the goal to achieve agreement? What if we can’t find any common ground—what do we do?
Let’s start with something we probably all will recognize quite well: how most of our discussions on tough subjects go these days.
“You know, I’m just sick and tired of all the nonsense you people spout all the time. If we accepted your ideas for how to run things in this country it wouldn’t be long before we wouldn’t recognize it. I just don’t understand how you can call yourself an American…and still support your party and its candidates. I mean the whole system—the system you and your party created—is corrupt to the core!”
“Yeah? Well maybe you should look in the mirror! Look, you and people like you have done more than almost anyone in our history to destroy this great nation. We didn’t rig the “system” as you call it—you did!”
“Oh, come on! The problems we’re facing now are on you and all your politicians! I’d like nothing better than seeing a ballot without a single one of your guys on it! The fact is you’re all worthless! No, worse than worthless—you’re…dangerous!”
“Look who’s talking! You are such an idiot!
“And you’re nothing but an ignorant, pig-headed blowhard who doesn’t have a clue! This is the last time. I’m just done with this, done with you! The sooner you and your kind crawl back under the rock you came from, the better off for all of us.”
“Yeah, well you can go to….”
This is actually not a conversation. It’s a verbal confrontation between two people (who may be related or otherwise know each other quite well) each of whom has his mind made up—in this case about a range of issues. Both sides are only interested in dismissing or denigrating the other’s ideas or arguments. All too quickly, the exchange becomes personal—each blaming the other and all those who share that view—before degenerating still further into name-calling and demonization. This is verbal “battle” where the issues are seen in stark, black-and-white, life-or-death, terms; where the desire to find common ground is seen as weakness and any attempt at understanding or compromise is anathema. This is the deep, visceral polarization that is wreaking havoc on our nation, our society, our community.
Confrontation is not about asking questions; it’s not about self-reflection; it’s not about challenging our own assumptions; it’s not about applying standards of clarity, logic, or accuracy. The purpose of confrontation is not to gain an understanding of another’s perspective. Civility is the first casualty of confrontation.
To engage in a genuine conversation about tough, contentious issues, on the other hand, requires all of these things. In a representative democracy such as ours, discussing the wide range of views on a myriad of complex subjects crucial to the good of our community, our society, our nation rests on our ability to converse civilly with each other—on our commitment to civil discourse. Civility, in short, is at the heart of civil discourse and civic engagement.
In this context then, conversation, is where we exchange ideas, assess them, draw conclusions about them, explore their implications and consequences, and work toward a mutually agreeable approach to solving problems. You can’t really have a conversation in this sense without asking questions, reflecting on our own perspective and what informs it (as well as that of others), challenging our own assumptions (as well as that of others), applying intellectual standards to evaluate whether something makes sense or doesn’t. The purpose of conversation is to gain understanding of different perspectives.
Let’s re-imagine the confrontation above as a conversation.
“You know, it troubles me that we can’t seem to agree on much of anything anymore. How did we get here?”
“That’s been bothering me, too. As for how we got here, that’s a tough question. But it does seem to me that we have to try to answer it if we really want to understand why we can’t seem to agree on anything these days. You want to give it a shot?”
“Hmmm, this is a good start. You realize we just agreed on something!”
“You’re right! It seems we did and that’s a lot better than the last time we talked.”
“Yeah, I know. But I have to be honest. I know this is no surprise, but I really do find a lot of the views you hold just, well, hard to grasp—I just don’t really understand them.”
“Gosh, that’s something else we agree on: I don’t understand a lot of your views either! Hey, we’re on a roll!”
“So how about we push it a little? How come we have such radically different views on, say, immigration?”
“Well, that seems more like jumping right in as opposed to testing the waters, but OK. I look the at the whole immigration issue in this way….”
This is a conversation. At the very outset there’s an explicit, and mutual, desire to solve a problem—to figure out why disagreement and misunderstanding had come to be the hallmark of the two individuals’ political discussions. Each party asks a question. Much to their surprise, both realize they’ve established a common ground for proceeding. Both show a willingness to be candid yet to refrain from attacking each other’s views or personalizing things. In short, they have laid a foundation of civility for what they both realize will be difficult discussions. They’ve also agreed, at the outset, that as tough as their future discussions might be, it’s a far better course to follow than the one they’d been on.
The choice before us is whether we want to continue down the path of confrontation or pursue real conversation—genuine civil discourse.