The Forgotten Art of Civil Discourse

I haven’t blogged in a while, largely because I have been busy with other things, but I have been watching US politics rather more than previously, and not liking what I am seeing.  The polarization of the two-party system has been expressed in isolated discourses with minimal cross-over, in which vocal members of each group express outrage and ridicule at the other group’s viewpoints, mock the appearance of representatives of the other group, engage in ad hominem (and ad familiam) attacks, and do all this while expressing outrage that members of the other group should treat them in the same discourteous manner.  Civility seems to be nearly extinct.  If the American way of government is to be saved, and I must admit great appreciation of the freedoms to which we have grown accustomed, we must reclaim civil discourse, not only in the sense of discourse about issues related to the civilian society, but also discourse which is civil in tone, even when disagreeing strongly.

Therefore, in the spirit of “First take the plant out of your own eye” (Matt 7:5; to which the liberal slogans “be the change” and “change begins with me” are rough paraphrases), I thought I might propose a few rules for civil discourse, which I am attempting to put into practice.  I warmly welcome proposed additions (non-partisan only, please), comments calling attention to where I myself transgress these, or broader subscription to these or similar principles of civil discourse!

  1. No matter how crazy or offensive I find someone’s expressed viewpoint, I will respond to the issue rather than insulting the speaker.
  2. I will not criticize an opponent’s appearance (whatever color they may appear).
  3. No matter how dangerous I feel an opponent’s ideas to be, I will not suggest that they ought to be (a) killed, (b) tortured, (c) deported, (d) deposed, or (e) jailed, unless those ideas are in fact illegal.  Freedom of speech protects the expression of any ideas, no matter how distasteful or even harmful, which are not expressly declared illegal (such as libel, conspiracy to commit a crime, or advocacy of terrorism).  There are things legal which ought to be illegal, but someone cannot legally be punished for them until they are made illegal.
  4. I will not call something “illegal” or “criminal” unless it is (or at least I believe it to be in fact criminal).  Many things are wrong, stupid, offensive, and harmful which are not in fact illegal or criminal.
  5. I will not repeat a denunciation without having first investigated its accuracy for myself.  (Retweets count as repeating something.)
  6. If I do not have any original thought to express, I will remain silent rather than repeat partisan slogans.
  7. I will recognize the correct legal titles, courtesies, and honors of people who disagree with me, rather than calling their standing into question.  Legal titles are not a question of behavior, but of appointment, and are objective, not subjective.
  8. I will search for what I may agree with in what my political opponents express.
  9. I will always tell the truth, and always add sufficient context and nuance to avoid misleading half-truths.
  10. I will avoid ridicule.  While humor is good, what I find funny is often not what my political opponents find funny, and will likely only offend them.  Mockery is being overused in our political discourse right now.  Besides, ridicule is often just a weak attempt to cover not having a convincing counter-argument.

Notice that none of this says I will always agree.  In fact, I am finding very little in contemporary political discourse, from any quarter, with which I can agree in good conscience.  That is why it is all the more important to disagree and maintain civility.

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