Emotions & Civil Political Discourse
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Emotions & Civil Political Discourse

When emotions run high, is civility or a civil discussion still possible?

Why do we find ourselves reacting emotionally to difficult, complex issues?  How can we control our emotional response in such circumstances?  What’s the relationship, the connection between our feelings and our thoughts?  Why is a clear understanding of that connection so important to civility and civil discourse?

Understanding how our thoughts and feelings are connected, how they interact and affect each other is an essential first step in exploring whether and how we can have civil discussions on almost anything, but especially on complex issues where people have different, often strongly held, points of view.

As basic functions of the human mind, thinking and feeling (along with wanting) are intricately and inextricably connected.  Every thought we have generates a feeling; every feeling influences our thinking.  Together, our thoughts and feelings frame and influence what we want, propelling us to some action.  Thinking, feeling, and wanting continuously interact and influence each other in a dynamic process, and this process usually takes place at the unconscious level.

The fascinating thing about us humans, though, is that we have the capacity to examine this process at the conscious level.  That is, we can choose to analyze how that process unfolds and assess how it is affecting our lives.  In other words, we can at any time ask ourselves, for example, what we’re thinking, why we’re feeling the way we are, and whether taking a particular action (saying or doing something) would be good or bad—for us and for others.

Unfortunately, we rarely use this capacity, and when we do we frequently lack the tools and the skills to make the most of it.

When our thoughts and feelings involve relatively simple things, we may manage without needing to closely analyze what is going on within them.  We know we want to go for a walk because we see walking as worthwhile, having figured out (thinking) there are real benefits to the activity.  We weigh the costs and benefits of doing it now or later and make a choice (again, thinking). We feel good about walking and are driven to do so by the thinking we are doing about walking. In these simple cases, we likely don’t notice our thoughts, feelings and desires working in tandem.

On the other hand, addiction treatment, homelessness, healthcare, immigration, overwhelming technological change, dysfunctional politics, economic inequality, injustice, are more complicated.  The more complex an issue, the more difficult it is to think it through rationally and reasonably.  The more significant it is to us, the more likely we are to experience rising anxiety or fear—of being threatened – when it is not addressed.  The less we know about complex issues significant to us, the more threatening it feels to us. The greater our sense of being somehow threatened, the greater our fear.  And as our fear increases, so, too, might our anger when we sense that others don’t see the same level of threat.

Fear and anger are potent emotions.  The stronger they are, the lower,  usually, is our ability to control them—to understand why we feel them and to explain them to ourselves or to others.  At the core of any uncivil discussion lies some degree of fear and/or anger.  The greater the fear and anger regarding any issue, the lower the prospect for civil discourse.

This is where we are today in our community, our societies, our nation.

Everywhere we turn we find ourselves confronting inordinately complicated issues that generate strong emotions – making reasonable, respectful discussion and debate exceedingly difficult or impossible.

What can we do about this problem?


To elaborate: We need to commit to the hard task of analyzing how we think, how we feel, and what we want – when it comes to complex, complicated issues. We need to devote the intellectual effort to the process; we need to hone our mental skills; we need to acquire a powerful box of critical thinking tools.

If everyone were in control of their thinking, we’d have a far better chance of having civil discussions about even the most complex issues. We’d stand a far better chance of finding solutions to the complicated problems we face.  We’d be far better positioned to reduce the real threats we face, thereby lowering our sense of fear and anger.

This might still seem a daunting task but when you think about the alternative, it becomes clear that what truly threatens us is our failure to take control of our thinking.

We need to change this, and here is one way we can start.

Think of a situation you were in recently where you experienced fear or anger or some other similar negative emotion such as frustration or depression or :

  • Write out in detail what was going on in that situation and how you felt.
  • Try to figure out what you were thinking that led to that feeling.
  • Write down how your thinking and feeling impacted your behavior—given what you were thinking and feeling, what were you motivated to say or do?[1]

Here’s a similar exercise:

  • Take a complicated issue you’re dealing with—or one you know the community (or our society or the nation) faces.
  • Write down what you view as the potential threats, dangers, and/or risks associated with that issue.
  • Ask yourself why you see it this way and what effect it has on your feelings about the issue at hand.
  • Write down what it would take for you to feel less fearful about the threats, dangers, risks you see being posed under the circumstances.

Even through such basic steps, we can gain some interesting insights and begin to take control of our thinking.  When we take control of our thinking, we take control of our emotions.  When we have control of our emotions, we can have civil conversations about even the toughest of issues.

[1] Richard Paul, Linda Elder, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Life, Pearson Education/Financial Times Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NY, 2002


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