On Civility and Power, Part II
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On Civility and Power, Part II

How can we have civil conversations about complicated issues? What specific steps can we take to restore trust and confidence in our capacity to solve complex problems? Is it sufficient just to re-establish strong emotional connections to and within a community?

When we see any problem as a nail to be hammered in, it makes sense that the tool we reach for is a hammer. Conversely, when the only tool we have at hand or are comfortable using is a hammer, it’s understandable that we’d be inclined to characterize all our problems as nails needing to be pounded in.

This is where we find ourselves when any and all conversation is seen as a “raw struggle for power.” So if we want to have civil conversations, especially about complicated issues, we first have to start seeing them as more than just a nail to be hammered in, which means we need to bring—and use—other tools.

Sound reasoning—critical thinking—is the essential tool kit all of us need to share when it comes to dealing with any problem but especially complex, complicated ones. Indeed, without this tool kit, we’ll find it hard, if not impossible, to know which problems are hard, which ones are easy, and what it will take in either case to solve them. In other words, unless we use the tools of sound reasoning we won’t be able to tell whether the problem is just a nail waiting to be hammered, a major repair job, or a whole structure we need to build from scratch.

When the only tool we have at hand or are comfortable using is a hammer, we’re likely to see all our problems as nails.

Until we start to really think—carefully and critically—about the myriad issues confronting us today, we’ll also remain vulnerable to the manipulation of those for whom power is the primary goal, who want us to see every problem as a nail, the only solution being a hammer.

Sound Reasoning, Critical Thinking

What exactly does sound reasoning entail? How can we know critical thinking when we see it?

To start, the two terms are interdependent—you can’t have one without the other. When our reasoning is sound it means we’re asking questions, seeking and evaluating information, working through a problem or an issue carefully, systematically, logically. It means we’re reaching conclusions based on evidence, that we’ve considered different perspectives on the issue at hand, that we’ve examined our own assumptions (as well as those of others). It means that we are open to new information or new perspectives, recognizing that they could alter our judgments. Sound reasoning, by definition, takes into account and works through the intricacies of complex problems.

Critical thinking is how we determine whether our reasoning (or anyone else’s) is sound. When we think critically it means we’re using a structured, deliberate approach to thinking—to how we reason, one that identifies and takes into account the elements of thought such as the goal or purpose of our thinking, the question at issue, the information we use, the assumptions we make, the implications and consequences of our judgments. It means applying a set of standards that include clarity, accuracy, precision, fairness, to evaluate thinking. It means cultivating intellectual traits or habits of mind—intellectual curiosity, rigor, fairmindedness, confidence in reason—that help us measure and improve our skill at thinking critically. Critical thinking, by definition, enables us to assess how well (or poorly) we are dealing with any problem, but especially complicated ones.

At the heart of the political, social, economic, or cultural divides that seem to grow starker and wider every day is the core assertion that if one side is to gain the other must lose. This essentially reduces the most complex issues, the most difficult problems, to a nail requiring nothing more than a hammer. Here, there’s no incentive to: acknowledge facts other than those that buttress our own side; recognize, let alone explore and understand, intricacies or difficulties; approach the conversation calmly and reasonably; appreciate that other perspectives exist and may even have value.

Not surprisingly, the more frequently and stridently that assertion is made and believed, the stronger the impulse to defend one’s own side from those on the “other” side. When we feel sure that anyone outside our group poses a dire threat it’s easy to dismiss or demonize them. This is how we can conclude that civility is an inherently dangerous weakness.

The Problem of Toxic Tribalism

Terms used to describe this phenomenon today are “tribalism” or “toxic tribalism.” Tribalism itself has a long history originating in Rome and having acquired many different uses and connotations. But its definition is basically neutral—it simply means “the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.” Sound reasoning and critical thinking are not normally included among those attitudes or behaviors.


Rational, thoughtful conversations are civil conversations–the antidote to toxic tribalism.

The present-day use of “tribalism,” often modified by the term “toxic,” has a very different meaning, connoting a degree of identity and loyalty where sound reasoning and critical thinking have given way to strong emotional ties, to groupthink, and an “us versus them” mindset. In its mildest form it is used to excuse incivility; in its most virulent, it is used to justify the use of force either to maintain or to gain power, and an increased willingness to engage in violent behavior to do so. And “toxic” is the perfect adjective in this case because we are all being exposed to the poison being spread by this kind of “tribalism.”

Sound reasoning and critical thinking are the antidotes. The more they, as opposed to loyalty or identity, are the basis for creating (or re-creating) the bonds uniting us (whether as a community, a nation, a society, a culture), the less we have to worry about the adverse effects or negative consequences of tribalism, toxic or not. The more we insist that our conversations are framed and guided by sound reasoning, the better our chances at addressing complex issues and finding solutions to hard problems. The more each of us develops the skills and traits of good critical thinkers, the more civil our conversations will be.

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