One Easy Way To Promote Civil Discourse

Find out why someone holds certain views and build on that

We need more but better political discussion. Image Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

It’s a mistake to think we can reduce polarization by pulling back from discussion; in fact, we need more but better discourse. But what is “better” discourse?

Previously, when I heard this sort of question, I would indicate various things one should not do. Even though a lot of people break these “don’ts” all the time, they’re fairly obvious and commonsensical. They include: Don’t engage in name calling; don’t make assumptions about what the person you are talking to believes without first taking the time to find out; and don’t attribute any sort of malevolence to them simply because they don’t share your views.

Fine. But let’s flip things and make a positive suggestion—also something simple, but not as simple as the negatives: Remember that most people have reasons for their views and build on that. But how exactly do we do that? More specifically, how should we build on someone else’s reasons? This is where things start to get less simple.

For starters, while people generally have reasons for their views, those reasons are often inchoate and unclear, even to them. At the same time, though, those reasons usually come down to one of five things:

  • we shouldn’t harm people
  • we shouldn’t harm ourselves
  • we shouldn’t insult people
  • we should be moral, and
  • we should help people.

In short: Don’t harm or insult anyone, including yourself, and be moral and help people. Or, to put it another way, be good to yourself and those around you.

Those five things are each important and pretty universally recognized even if not always accepted as good reasons for action, inaction or interference with action. Indeed, each of those five items has a corresponding normative principle often recognized in law. So simply realizing that people intuitively accept one or more of the five can help us better engage in civil dialogue.

At the same time, it is very common for the reasons that people have for their views—inchoate and unclear though they may be—to vary. Also, it is rarely the case that someone accepts all five of the reasons I list as good justifications for behavior or, perhaps more importantly, for limiting behavior. Moreover, people will disagree about how to define each of the five and about what each actually entails. For instance, what is “harm” and what sorts of harms are significant enough to warrant interfering with someone? Likewise, what is “offensive” and what sorts of offenses are significant enough to warrant interfering with someone?

My basic suggestion, then, is that when you find yourself discussing some moral or political issue with someone that you disagree with, ask yourself if you can figure out which of the five basic factors they are concerned with, ask them if they are, in fact, concerned with what you think they are concerned with and then discuss that. This means asking a lot of questions, which in itself is a good way to engage with people with whom you disagree. It also means trying to figure out why they think there is something concerning about the case involving the reason you’ve identified and what, precisely, they think the problem really is.

As an example, if you’re having a discussion with someone about whether transgender women (women who were born male) should be able to compete in sports competitions intended for women, try to determine if there is a concern about harm done to the other women in the competition, or whether the other person believes there is something immoral about being transgender, or something else. If they believe there is a harm involved but you do not (or vice versa), try to determine, in conversation with them, what that harm is. If they believe there is an immorality involved but you do not (or vice versa), again, try to determine, in conversation with them, what that immorality is.

Engaging the other person like this, especially while retaining a curiosity about how they and others think, is a way of showing them respect. Your behavior—engaging them in probing but respectful conversation—basically tells them that you take them seriously as someone who has real reasons for what they believe and that you want to know more, perhaps to see if you are mistaken. It also allows the other person the opportunity—indeed, an invitation—to do the same with you. If they are willing to engage in this way, it can help you both to develop an honest and mutually beneficial relationship.

This sort of discourse—genuine, honest and civil—can be a win-win in that it will help you learn and improve your own thinking all while helping build better relations with those around you. Genuine civil discourse is delightful precisely because it helps engage our curiosity and improve our thinking, while at the same time helping us build genuine connections to others.

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