Cultural Analysis – Civility Is A Two-Way Street – 19 August 2012

I thought I should bring this site to your attentions, and compare and contrast its suggestions for how to promote civility in public discourse with another set of suggestions which has achieved some prominence in our culture.

The “Civility in Public Discourse” page at the University of Colorado’s Conflict Research Consortium identifies rules of civility in public discourse I can get behind, and to which I would gladly hold myself. They are:

1. Separating people from the problem.
2. Obtain available technical facts.
3. Limit interpersonal misunderstandings.
4. Use fair processes.
5. Limit escalation.
6. Honour legitimate uses of legal, political and other types of power.
7. Separate win/win from win/lose issues.
8. Limit the backlash effect.
9. Keep trying to persuade and allow yourself to be persuaded.
10. More persuasion, more exchange, less force.

When those of us who inhabit space on the liberal Left try to follow these rules, it can be rewarding, but it can also put a big “chump” sign on our heads. When we follow these rules with people who also are willing to follow the rules, we find we can reach agreement with people we previously did not understand well and could not come to terms with well. However, when we follow these rules with people who will not also follow them, these kinds of outcomes don’t follow. When we follow these rules with people who are determined to blow these rules away, it may make us look like sad sacks who can’t defend our most basic interests.

Suppose, for example, you are dealing with someone who pursues this course:

1. You people are the problem.
2. Facts? What’s a fact? Facts are so hazy, who knows what they really are?
3. People seem to really believe this false story I’m spreading about you.
4. A fair process is one which benefits me. You, on the other hand, seem to go on a lot about what you’re “entitled” to…
6. Your demonstrations and organisational efforts imply disloyalty, and are really about depriving me of my freedom.
7. Here’s a win/win…except my win is bigger than yours and can reverse yours later.
8. Your reaction when I sock it to you proves you are too emotional.
9. End of discussion. I have more important things to do than think about this.
10. Persuasion, by all means. Of course, if you disagree, you will be economically, socially and culturally sanctioned, with my approval and participation.

These are the flip sides of the rules of civility, and, of course, they are very familiar ones.

Here is my radical suggestion: We owe people who respond in this way nothing. Zero. Nada. Goose eggs. Civility is not something my side does and your side doesn’t. It’s not being unfriendly to demand better. It’s laying out what the basis of our friendship actually is.

If that’s an idea that shocks you, consider the alternative view of civility our culture propagates. This is an example of same from the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”:

1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say “You’re Wrong.”
3. If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
4. Begin in a friendly way.
5. Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.
6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
7. Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers.
8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
11. Dramatize your ideas.
12. Throw down a challenge.

To me, the difference between this vision of civility and the one the University of Colorado presents couldn’t be clearer. This view of civility largely consists in people never challenging the wrong views of others and being obsequious in admitting one’s own wrongness. It’s also a view that is based on cunning and trickery (“let the other person do a great deal of the talking; let the other people feel the idea is his or hers”) rather than rational exchange. In short, it proceeds from the idea that the person you’re trying to convince is beyond reason and has to be schmoozed and emotionally manipulated into agreeing with you. That’s not how I treat people I genuinely see as my “friends”, sorry.

Even if I’m uncomfortable with it, it’s undeniable – this approach probably will win you more friends and influence more people.

Maybe that’s why I have fewer friends. But it’s also why I have better ones.

Also, maybe that’s why I influence fewer people. But it’s also why I influence them in a better way.

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