Are we willing to take the steps required to restore civil political discourse? Are we ready to make the hard choices necessary to re-assert and regain control over how we talk about “politics?” Do we have the commitment, the discipline—the courage—needed to engage in thoughtful, respectful discussion of issues on which we disagree profoundly?
Let’s start by recognizing, and stating explicitly, a core assumption underlying all of these questions: we, as individuals, as a community, as a society, as a nation actually value civil political discourse and believe we can—and must—restore it. But at this juncture this assumption’s validity rests on what we think about political discourse and what we do to restore and preserve it.
Previously in this column I invoked the image of Three Pines, a fictional small village in the Canadian Province of Quebec and a central place in Louise Penny’s novels. Penny conjured up Three Pines in her imagination and has said that it is meant to represent a “state of mind,” where tolerance is chosen over hate, kindness over cruelty, goodness over bullying, hope over cynicism. As such, it’s a place that captures the essence of civility.
Penny’s notion of wisdom, widely quoted, is especially apt for how we think about, and engage in any kind of discussion, but especially political discourse. Through her central character, Inspector Gamache, she explains that there are four statements that lead to wisdom:
They, too, capture the essence of civility and reflect essential elements of critical thinking without which civil discourse on any subject is all but impossible.
Now take just a moment and try to think of the last time you saw any of those statements anywhere on social media or heard them uttered in the course of any political discussion.
Need more time? Can’t remember ever having that experience? You’re not alone. We can change that, but here’s where the hard work begins—restoring civil political discourse will depend on whether we want to take even some hesitant, tentative steps in search of wisdom.
Where to begin?
Acknowledging—first to ourselves—that we don’t know something is what prompts us to ask questions, and we can’t determine what we know or don’t know without asking questions. For example, how do we know that our views on, say, impeachment, or the local options for treating opioid addiction, or dealing with inequality or injustice are reasonable? What information do we use in developing those views? Can we verify the accuracy and reliability of the facts we’re using to support our views? Are we taking into fair account different perspectives on the issue at hand? Have we made our position clear and do we clearly understand other views? Do we know what standards we’re applying—to ourselves and others—when we evaluate what we’re thinking and saying and feeling?
Admitting we need help which, in this context, is simply accepting that we are human: none of us are omniscient; all of us have built-in cognitive biases as well as acquired social, political, and cultural preconceptions and prejudices; none of us can understand or overcome those limits on our own. Seeking assistance in understanding complexity or controversy follows from acknowledging that we don’t know something. Welcoming such help and applying the insights that come from it is what reduces the frequency of having to say, “I’m sorry.”
Apologizing for our behavior—for what we have thought, said, felt, done, is taking responsibility for the consequences of that behavior. None of us are perfect or infallible; our built-in and acquired biases can lead to irrational thoughts, feelings, and actions with hurtful results. Civility doesn’t exist without the willingness to express regret for having caused pain or distress. Civility also rests on our ability to grasp and accept that not all harm is equal—we have to think through what was said or done, what the effect was, and what, then, is required to rectify things. These days it is unfortunately necessary to stress that “apology” means an honest, sincere expression of such regret, not a superficial, disingenuous effort to evade responsibility.
Saying “I was wrong,” expresses the fact that we understand why we had to say, “I’m sorry,” when we did. Without knowing and being able to explain (to ourselves and others) the reasons behind our irrational or erroneous thinking, and the resulting behavior and consequences, our apology, however heartfelt and well-intentioned, will be insufficient. Meaningful, productive civil discourse aimed at finding solutions to difficult problems cannot happen unless someone, at some point says, “I was wrong.”
But let’s also be clear: today a lot of us are not at all interested in any kind of “civil” discourse; many are perfectly content with the kind of “talk” that typifies most exchanges on anything concerning politics; civility is dismissed as a weakness or as a means to compel conformity and stifle discontent. The most profound gap dividing us today is between those who want civil political discourse and those who don’t. What unites the extremes on both ends of the political spectrum is an utter disdain for thoughtful, respectful discussion—and the real problem is that the “ends” of the spectrum are taking up a larger and larger part of the spectrum. There is little chance we can persuade them to join us in our pursuit of a “Three Pines ‘state of mind,’” 0r our search for wisdom. But we can’t let that be an impediment.
In other words, it’s up to all who answer “Yes,” to the questions raised at the beginning of this column and who rise to the challenges they pose.