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The Benefits of Civil Discourse & Open Mindedness

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| August 24, 2021

What it is, how it works and why it matters to people and society.

Even if you don’t know what civil discourse is exactly, you may sense that something is wrong with how people discuss social issues now. Most people who participate in online discussions, debate politics with friends or watch pundits on YouTube have encountered the trolling, name-calling and misrepresentation that goes on so often. 

Many people probably wish this would change, that uncivil arguments could be replaced by rational and polite debate about pressing social issues. This is what civil discourse is, but the personal and social benefits can only come about through hard work. Taking on the challenge of change begins by understanding what should or could be going on, why it isn’t going on and what can be done.

What Is Civil Discourse?

Civil discourse is, in essence, just the ability to listen to people and discuss things with them in a nonjudgmental way. Wikipedia tells us that civil discourse has two components. The first component, the one you probably thought about, is to be polite and avoid personal attacks. The second, and arguably more important, component is the part where social responsibility and civic engagement come in. Engaging in civil discourse is part of being a good citizen.

Pointing out errors in someone’s logic or facts is one thing. Cutting them off because you don’t like their conclusion is another. Instead of listening to understand and argue logically, people sometimes look for a chance to attack anyone not on their “team.” On a practical level, you lose opportunities to see errors in your thinking or miss a chance to learn new things.

Online discussions may pose a challenge because people on each side are as anonymous as they want to be. Anonymity is valuable to someone who wants to share sensitive information about themselves or share a view that could get them in trouble at home or work. Anonymity can also provide cover for people who want to spread misinformation, harass people and share propaganda. 

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When Civil Discourse Gets Left Behind

Do you naturally retreat from learning from gun rights advocates, hunters, lesbians, Muslims or evangelical Christians? Polarization happens when people retreat to their own virtual corner, reading their liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning media. Neither could realistically be 100% correct on every issue. The same is true for individuals and their perspectives on issues.

The web is good for amplifying extreme views on political and social questions. Unfortunately, some online users use hit-and-run attacks on the other side, attacking their intelligence, looks, race and more. This uncivil behavior does more to close minds than to promote meaningful discussions.

The Benefits of Being Open-Minded

Listening, or reading, and trying to be open can lead to a shift in perspective. Personally, that shift can feel good, if you like to learn new things. If you appreciate having your faulty thinking corrected, you will appreciate being corrected. 

If change makes you nervous, engaging in an open-minded discussion with a few people who favor that change can be therapeutic. You may learn that a certain change is not a threat. 

Open-mindedness increases your odds of learning from the other side in a discussion. You learn something about the facts and logic they use to make their case. You might learn something about the values or beliefs that drive people on the other side of an issue from you.

If you are active in politics or in social activism, your openness to new information and new arguments will, perhaps, lead to you being more effective. If you try to understand other peoples’ arguments, you might sympathize more. You may also find your views evolving.  

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Getting Good at Civil Discourse

Like any skill, your skill at engaging in civil discourse will improve with practice. Keep these tips in mind as you practice, online or offline: 

  • Be humble because everyone has blind spots in their experience or their understanding of things.
  • Be slow to dismiss someone whose lifestyle or opinion is different.
  • Realize that everyone has reasons for the beliefs or opinions they express.
  • Understand that a difference of opinion or a critical remark doesn’t say anything about your intelligence, education or values.
  • Know that you are just as vulnerable to psychological tricks as anyone else.
  • Realize we all have gaps in our knowledge. Even something as simple as confusing the terms “theory” and “educated guess” can trip you up and keep you from understanding a subject.

No one can process all of the information and arguments they encounter every day. Even if we tried, our psychology can work against us. If you want a good overview of this topic, you can study various cognitive biases at length. But, you don’t need a great deal of education on how different cognitive biases work. 

Practice being aware of your tendency toward confirmation bias. People often look for information that confirms their opinions or beliefs. When they find that information, they may not be as critical as they should be. And then people share their questionable discoveries online. Some pundits and vloggers exploit these glitches in the human mind to get followers and make money.

Conclusions

Civil discourse is useful for people who want to discuss social problems, explore possible solutions and refine their thinking. However, uncivil discourse can be easier, especially online. Uncivil discourse also has plenty of fans, especially online. If you want to become a better thinker or a change agent, learning how to engage in civil discourse is crucial. 

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