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A Plea for Civil Discourse

We have a megaphone and an audience to shout to. This time, let's use it to bridge the divide.

  • 4 min to read

75 percent of Americans say the way we interact with people across differences has reached a crisis level, according to Weber Shandwick, and another 56 percent see civility in America worsening over the next few years. There’s nothing wrong with passionate beliefs, disagreement, and protest, but it feels like something more dangerous is taking hold.

It’s an undeniable argument that there’s a plea for civil discourse in America. Rather, I’d argue there’s a shared visceral fear among many that public discourse is eating away at the core of our democracy. The United States was founded on compromise and the making of it includes a spectrum of ethnicities and heritages, yet our daily doings are overwhelmed with an ever-coarsening discourse that is quick to add the dissonance rather than allow for an understanding. 

I’ve known that divisiveness in our nation is a repercussion of the ever-so-grueling nature of our government (past and current), but until I moved to D.C. I didn’t quite understand the severity that its impact has on our ability to be, put simply, civil human beings. So as a college undergrad and aspiring political journalist, I write with an attempt to dip into the minds of the next generation politicians, educators, doctors, and all those in between in hopes to offer a less polarized outlook on our political ideologies. 

First off, what is civil discourse? It isn’t a hard concept to grasp as it is to practice. Essentially civil discourse, as explained by American University, is the action of listening to understand rather than vigorously responding without pause. You aren’t engaging in conversation to attack the person in front of you; you’re engaging to listen and offer new perspectives, whether you choose to agree or not.  

Hala Harik Hayes from the National Institution for Civil Discourse spoke in a closed discussion last week about the necessity of civil discourse and its impact on relationships. She described civility as showing respect toward someone else, which may be a concept hard to grasp in a polarized society saturated in bigotry and a never-ending social timeline of hate and dissenting opinions. Yet, her points made sense. Relating civility to politics brings up the very idea that despite living in the same world, abiding by the same rules, political ideologies are a key gateway to igniting hate because we don’t know how to let another’s belief not feel like a personal attack. In a perfect world, our differing opinions would lead to a common ground for change and less gridlock. It would lead to an opportunity for a less divided nation and one that is more apt to allow divergent perspectives to bridge the divide. 

Just like no story has one side, no political affiliation has one, always-right, binding truth. The acceptance of civil discourse in politics is detrimental to being an informed constituent, and is arguably an infectious epidemic since we’re programmed with a “need to be right” mentality. 

Darrell West, political scientist and retired Brown University professor, wrote a book recently called Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era that tastefully articulates why Americans are so angry with each other. In it, West argues that social tensions have seriously permeated our ability to uphold a functioning democracy with the level of profound hatred that makes it impossible for us all to work together, let alone stand being in the same room.

Reading West’s book put in perspective the multi-decade fight between parties to get anything done. Stepping back from looking at civil discourse with a mind immersed in politics every day, I think about college students (not all of course, but most), though this also pertains to our society as a whole, who have opinions without the backing of factual evidence yet outwardly use social platforms to express outrage and ignite an even deeper division. A concept introduced in Jason Brennan’s book Against Democracy, citizens are divided into three categories, creatively labeled as hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans. 

Ironically, we live in a world full of hobbits and hooligans. Hooligans know more than hobbits do (who have little or no interest in politics and have very low political knowledge) and tend to dismiss opposing opinions from their own. This is an issue to the preservation of a democracy in need of informed individuals. Truly, we need more well informed, engaged, Vulcans that are able to share knowledge and dismantle the never-ending warfare we have with each other.

Warfare, however, has been a constant heavy shadow following all of us especially since the recent election. Political affiliation aside, recognizing how radically unprecedented the rhetoric is of the current president is imperative to stop it from happening again in 2020. Too many Americans refuse to entertain the possibility that an opponent might be a decent human being despite being wrong about an issue. So instead of conversations that might change minds, we reduce our debates to toxic confrontations. We have to do better and it will require a bipartisan effort. 

For liberals, it’s important to acknowledge that some conservatives have come to see calls for “civility,” as a code word for them to be quiet, while others see calls for more civil discourse as a sign of lack of conviction. 

For conservatives, it will be imperative to adopt a new approach and reject the combative model set by President Donald Trump — substituting demeaning slurs and insults for rational argumentation. 

 How do we let our - sometimes fundamentally different values - not result in spontaneous combustion? Well, 32 states took part in the National Week of Conversation with events that put civil discourse at the forefront. The goal was to bring Americans together to sit down and have productive conversations about some of our most divisive issues: free speech, immigration, the economy, race, guns, and more. Charlottesville — the site of the violent white supremacy rally that killed a counter-protester — took part in an event featuring dozens of Americans gathering to focus on how to bridge divides. 

Yet, we have a president who faces the world as an influence, justifying racist rhetoric and violent acts of hate crime. Attacking the motives and character of teenagers who experienced a traumatic school shooting does little to improve the image of gun rights advocates is not likely to bridge the political divide or lead to meaningful change. 

Democracy relies on people being willing to engage in the marketplace of ideas. But this can only happen if we can relearn how to listen to one another, work together and use our words to persuade, rather than divide.

The need for an understanding of civil discourse is imperative for the future of our democracy, but so too is it necessary for us all to be able to allow diverging opinions to persuade our political stance. No one side is the correct side whether you lean right, left, or independent. Having an opinion matters, and it’s a right worth practicing (especially in November next year).


Tacy Cresson is a contributing Endicott Observer writer -- former Features Editor -- fulfilling her senior internship at The American Prospect in Washington, D.C. You can contact Tacy via email: