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ARTICLE Civil Discourse

We do not always know what we have until it is in jeopardy. This is the case with civil discourse, respectful conversation. To engage in civil discourse is to avoid rage, hostility, and disparagement toward others even amid sharp disagreements. It requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. It is crucial for living and working in close quarters among people with diverse and conflicting assumptions, interests, and aspirations. And civil discourse is essential if democratic government is to function effectively. Only with humility and respectful exchange can a society composed of people from different religious, races, economic statuses, and life experiences, establish and sustain social peace and justice.

The framers of the United States Constitution worried about factions and tried to devise institutions that would prevent permanent social divisions; they did not anticipate political parties. Yet, within a decade of the early Republic, political parties formed and expressed vehement division in a long and bitter campaign for the presidency. Partisan rancor persisted for some time, oft receded only to erupt again into the Civil War, during which time more people died than in all other U.S. wars combined. We are now again living in a time of intense partisan conflict, and recollecting how such conflict can erupt into violence should move people on all sides to take the personal and collective steps necessary to repair civil discourse.

Yet we seem to have lost both the will and the ability to talk about matters of public importance in a manner that has a chance of leading to mutual understanding and persuasion. When argument becomes reduced to insults and slogans, all we can do is to mark friend and foe, destroying any chance of government of, by, and for the people. We each may think: “I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.” Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it.

Others can, and will, debate the role played by social media, Russian hacking, institutionalized forms of inequality, and distrust in provoking partisan division. Too many of us have lost the art of listening. We too easily caricature the positions our opponents take and we do not care to find out how they see issues. Without a desire to listen, we cannot take the perspective of others. And if we cannot control our emotions, we cannot listen with sympathy to what others have to say.

Moreover, few have learned to communicate beliefs, perspectives, understandings, and values in ways that others can understand. Perhaps we have stopped looking for common values that support our positions and even written off the possibility of finding common ground, or presenting our arguments in ways that could be understood and accepted by those we think are “on the other side.”

Perhaps we do not believe we can trust those with whom we disagree. When political opinion is only communicated by attacks, slogans, and insults, we withdraw, assume defensive postures, and stop even pretending to listen. Some of the problem does stem from hateful, threatening, unacceptable acts. Rallies stoking group hatred and violence come to mind. But there is no reason to attribute hateful acts to most people or certainly not to others simply because they align with a different political party or neighborhood.

Knowing what has gone wrong tells us what we need to do. First, we need to rekindle our respect for other people with whom we disagree. We can do that by really listening to them. To do that, we should assume they are arguing in good faith and expressing values, fears, and aspirations that they truly hold. That requires us to try to see the world from their perspective, to imagine how we might have the same fears and goals and values if we looked at the world from their vantage point.

Second, we need to learn to connect both their concerns and ours to common values. If we can do that, we can connect our arguments to values others can understand and possibly accept. We also can come to recognize that they are arguing for values that we also share. If we do this, we can communicate with each other, and communication is the first step to persuasion.

Third, we need to understand the emotions that others feel and the intuitions they have about important issues, while listening to the reasons they give for their beliefs and positions. Emotion is often based on moral intuitions that have some claim to respect. We can test our emotional responses and our strong intuitions by giving reasons why they make sense and are appropriate to the facts of the situation, but that requires us to give equal respect to the feelings of others, as well as the reasons they give for their feelings.

Fourth, we need to practice using reasoned arguments based on common values. We can acknowledge plural values, what they mean in specific cases, and the ways they push us in different directions. We can tell stories that help us understand the meaning of conflicts and identify the moral valence of human relationships at issue in the dispute. We can focus on social context to show why some values prevail in one situation while others prevail in a different setting. We can engage in Golden Rule reasoning that asks whether we could accept a rule, law, proposal, or resolution if we did not know on which side of the dispute we were. We can practice humility by taking the perspective of others and seeing what we can learn from them, noting the values they assert that we agree with and want to pursue and support.
Generous listening and respect across differences matter because they actually produce better, more creative and inclusive results as well as because they reflect the right way to treat others and to want to be treated. Sometimes, we just will not agree, and, then we need modes of living together, accommodating differences, and, doing what it takes to be able to come back another time, for discussion or coexistence.

This volume contains materials that honor and strengthen civil discourse and human relationships. Let’s read and learn from them. Religious traditions offer valuable resources for us to use, now more than ever.

By Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University

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