Civil Discourse in Turbulent Times

Out of this current round of political-economic turbulence arises the query of when and how to speak truth to power. Need we remain civil in response to continual desecrations of human rights and freedoms? Mightn’t people stop being arrogant, violent, and corrupt if only we bluntly label their behavior? Haven’t we a right to be angry when faced with such blatant disregard for human life?

Our anger alerts us to wrongdoings in our midst. Truly, nonviolent peace work is outrageous as we are often rightfully motivated by our outrage. David Adams, who studies psychology and aggression, wrote, "Our biological legacy of aggression is the basis of our capacity for righteous indignation against injustice, which is much more essential for peace activism and peace education than it is for modern warfare." But few people tend toward upgrading their behavior by being made to feel badly; instead, most of us defensively shut our ears and obstinately intensify our activity when confronted. Dammed-up anger ferments into frustration; fear-tinged frustration explodes into rage, a prime ingredient in vindictive retaliation.

Freelance writer Jan Shaw-Flamm’s "Civil Discourse," an article based on her comprehensive research and interviews, appeared in the Fall 2002 Macalester Today. With her permission, I gratefully draw upon her insights and quote from her commentary.

"But we can, and maybe must, be relentlessly partisan without being actively uncivil." Yale law professor Stephen Carter contends that "the civil rights movement wanted to expand American democracy, not destroy it, and [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] understood that uncivil dialogue serves no democratic function. The true genius of . . . King was . . . his ability to inspire those [oppressed] people to be loving and civil in their dissent." Simply put, "Democracy demands dialogue, and dialogue flows from disagreement."

So how do we disagree civilly? Macalester political science professor Harry Hirsch suggests that we attack arguments not people; avoid digression into derogatory adjectives ("that’s stupid, that’s wrong"); assume that our opponent has some valid points; and never assume that we possess the whole truth. Mike McPherson, president of Macalester College, insists that we need to step back enough from our convictions and certainties to open ourselves to serious scrutiny of our ideas. While acknowledging the significance of convictions, he warns against holding our beliefs too rigidly. Although he recognizes that dialogue based on reasoned disagreements is difficult "concerning issues that have a lot of emotional weight . . . [McPherson] values civil discourse not because it’s polite but because if all we do is shout at one another or affirm without arguing the stance we have, then there is no way for us to make progress and learn. And learning from our differences is absolutely essential to a better future."

It isn’t only emotionality but also social constructs that impede civil discourse. Macalester communication and media studies professor Adrienne Christiansen recognizes the assumption that at its foundation "civil discourse . . . is class-based and . . . that people who perceive themselves, rightly or wrongly, as not having access to the corridors of power must rely on [disturbing] communication practices to draw attention . . . to their cause. This raises charges of uncivil discourse." It’s not enough, however, to simply challenge norms through disruption, asserts fellow Macalester political science professor Chuck Green. We need to "be able to model how [we] accomplish [our] goals." The folks being disrupted have responsibilities as well: "To listen, to see if that’s a legitimate concern, and find a way to handle it. In conversation you don’t necessarily come to agreement, but you maintain connection. . . That’s the problem with disruption: disruption breaks connections, rather than makes them."

A focus on maintaining connections even with our adversary is true collaboration, from the Latin for "working together." It was Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan who said "if you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends; you talk to your enemies." Seeing the other through the lens of compassion challenges our conditioning to reify and dehumanize the being with whom we don’t agree. Collaboration is fully, directly, honestly speaking my truth while maintaining an openness to hear just as fully my opponent’s truth. Collaboration recognizes how my opponent’s violent action does not justify my violent words or thoughts, as my callous attitude disrespects our common humanness and disregards that of God in each other. Collaboration appreciates the "one-derfulness" of life, a venture in which we’re inherently dependent on each other for our liberation.

Bob Morse

Bob Morse is clerk of South Mountain Meeting in Ashland, Oregon. This article appeared in that meeting's newsletter.