Putting the ‘civil’ in civil discourse

By definition, “civil discourse” refers to a conversation intended to promote understanding between those involved.

Unfortunately, these kinds of conversations seem to be getting rarer and rarer.

I’ve noticed that many people of late are falling out of relationships with those with whom they disagree about the upcoming presidential election.  I’ve read articles about company employees of one political persuasion trying to keep their opinions quiet, so as not to upset other employees of an opposite persuasion; I know folks who have been saddened to discover friends of theirs ending their friendships, refusing to talk to them over differing political ideologies.

I’ve come to the realization that too many people in this country have forgotten – or possibly never considered – that we’re all in this together.

In the wake of last night’s debate, and in light of the fact that Election Day is coming just two weeks from today, I felt it might be worth a reminder.  And while I make references to politics, civil discourse is something that should be practiced in everyday life.

We’re all on the same side…

I never get into politics here; and really, today’s post is more about human decency than anything else.  It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ you’re on…we’re ultimately all on the ‘same side.’

Most of us want the same thing; the problem is, we don’t always recognize this, and even if we do, we disagree on how to get there.  Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, independents, and most of the other parties out there all want the same thing:  a bright, promising future not only for ourselves, but especially for our children.  Rare is the person who wants the country’s economy to collapse and bring about an end to the nation’s system of government as we know it.

We are so passionate about our own personal beliefs, though, we forget this.  Indeed, that passion proves how much we love our country, our families and friends, our cities and towns; after all, if we really didn’t care, why would any of us be so vociferous?

I recall a conservative friend of mine once saying, “Liberals just want to tear this country apart!” while in a separate conversation, a liberal friend posed the question, “Why do conservatives hate this country so much?”  Now, knowing these two individuals as I do, I can tell you that neither one hates this country, neither wants it to fall apart, and both are good, upstanding citizens with homes and families and hope for the future.

Both are genuinely good people.

But it really took me aback to think that, even though they didn’t know each other, each had such a negative view of the other.

Beyond The First Amendment

We shouldn’t need to fall back onto the First Amendment as ‘protection’ for what we say.  We should be willing to listen to an opposing viewpoint simply because it’s the decent thing to do, and not fear retribution for our own beliefs.

My wife and I, for example, are nearly polar opposites when it comes to politics.  We always say that if we had used eHarmony.com when we were single, we’d have never met – the computer algorithms they use would have either never matched us up, or would’ve crashed trying.  You know how some couples say they never talk about religion and politics?  My wife and I talked about religion and politics on our first date.

And believe me, we have some great arguments at our house, too – heated, loud, impassioned – but never mean-spirited.  We love each other, and we know each of us wants what’s best for the country, as well as our kids’ future.  Just because we disagree on how to get there, doesn’t mean we don’t have the same goal.

We’ve opened up each other’s minds, too – I think each of us is a better person because of the insight we’ve gained from the other.

I also have plenty of friends I’ve known for years who are at complete opposite ends of the political spectrum – but we’ve remained friends for so long because we respect each other.  (The preponderence of a growing lack of respect towards others in general could make a whole OTHER blog post)

Civil ≠ Dispassionate

You’ve probably heard plenty of politicians asking for more ‘civil discourse’ over the last few years.  How has that turned out?  I think people assume that one cannot be passionate about something and still be civil.  The pervasive rationale is that one has to be mild-mannered and timid in order to not be offensive.  I don’t buy it.  Personally, when I get riled up about something I’m passionate about, my voice rises, my speech starts picking up, and my pulse quickens.  That doesn’t mean I’m offensive or disrespectful.  I’m just animated!  I’m excited!

But I’m still civil.

So the next time you start discussing the merits of one candidate or the other, or one policy over the other, remember that everyone in the conversation has the same goal: the improvement of our lives today and the security of the future of the generations to follow.

Remember that we’re all trying to get to the same place:  a place of happiness, prosperity, peace.

Remember my wife and I, who debate economic policy as we’re getting ready to go to sleep!

Differering opinions can coexist within a household.

And if they can exist in the bedroom, they should certainly be able to exist on the campaign trail.

6 thoughts on “Putting the ‘civil’ in civil discourse

  1. Great article Matt. I agree with you 100%. Years ago, as a young attorney, one of the things that I had to get used to was arguing a case and not getting, or taking things personal with counsel on the opposing side. After awhile it became easier to separate the issues we were arguing for our client’s, from the personal nature of our friendship. Now, it’s not uncommon to go have lunch with a colleague and talk about family, sports, politics, etc, then be toe to toe at a hearing right after. But it all comes down to professional courtesy and civil discourse.


  2. An interesting and timely post. It’s true that we all want bright promising futures for ourselves and our children. Civil discourse is always important, as is considering all sides of an issue, but in politics when certain ideologies/policies threaten the livelihoods and liberties of others, we have a real problem. Differences of opinion will always exist on the campaign trail. The question is how can we reach our mutual goal of a bright future when such differences exist? Civil, open-minded discourse is certainly part of the solution.


  3. Matt,

    This is a wonderful piece. I have chosen not to have political discussions with anyone other than my husband Joe. I have seen and read (via Facebook) some heated, nasty, rough languaged interactions between people. The anger that has snowballed is sad to witness. As you said, we predominately all want the same thing but – as in each of our lives – the path to getting there is different. And that “has to be” okay. That’s one of the benefits we have being Americans. We can choose a path that works for us and hopefully inflict little to no pain or inconvenience to others. The idea that people can no longer have open, honest conversations is disheartening. That is how we learn and grow, but it seems that we are becoming stunted. It’s concerning, but you have written a piece that I hope helps people to step back and reconsider listening with love and patience and not listening for what agrees with them.


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