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What Political Leaders Can Learn From Mediators About Civil Discourse

Another news day. Another day of partisan wrangling that equates to tribalism. News reports of the Republican effort in the house to pass a repeal of the healthcare act describe discussions as intense and only slightly more polite. Ironically, the name of the repeal effort is “Repealing the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act.” Threats issued from bully pulpits persist.

When did we begin to equate “civil” with “polite”? Does civility really require the kind of pinky in the air politeness equated with gentility? How far we have strayed from democratic notions of robust civil discourse.

I think that most of us would agree that vitriolic partisan rhetoric did not cause the savage events that took place on January 8, 2011 at the Gabrielle Gifford meet and greet in Tucson, Arizona. A clear causal link between a rhetoric of hate and the attack itself will be difficult to find as the FBI pieces together the intentions of the assailant. Yet it is a natural human tendency to seek an explanation…..a motive for the savagery so that we can understand what happened.

So, what is civil discourse? What is “discourse” and what makes it “civil”? Civil as opposed to what…..uncivil, criminal? In even approaching such definition, I get drawn into the trap of binary thinking….thinking that a thing must be this OR that. Examples of uncivil discourse abound…..yelling, blaming, personal vitriolic invective, hateful positioning, bullying and threatening, using power to overwhelm and destroy. One political pundit recently stated that everyone can tell the difference between hate speech and jokes. Really?

Does our discourse have an impact on those who hear it? I would certainly hope so, or why talk? Since when have we become unaccountable for the impact that our words have both publicly and privately? We want only to claim a causal relationship between our speech and its positive impact, but not the destructive. I am firmly of the camp that believes that language matters and that I must be responsible for the impact of my speech….both the intended and the unintended.

In our 24/7 world of soundbites and personal electronics and facebook pages and Wikileaks have the boundaries vanished between private speech and public speech? Many a diplomat has been recently embarrassed by having what they thought was private speech made public. Who are we fooling? When was the last time you communicated something on facebook that you hadn’t really intended to go viral? Some months ago I asked one of my adult children about a facebook chat chain between himself and his girlfriend that was intensely unhappy and personal in nature. He was surprised when I asked if everything was ok. Parents are no longer left to sneak peeks at children’s diaries…..just check the chat chain! Why do we feel so free to air our private thoughts in such public ways?

Back to the question of what is civil discourse? On a January 18, 2011 Diane Rehms show, noted Georgetown University communications scholar Deborah Tannen, defined civility as “not taking an adversarial stance and making the other guy your enemy,” and that people need to be open to having erred and to revision. Even our experts seem to describe civil discourse by what it is not.

Do we have language, words, to describe civil discourse? It appears that we are left to descriptions like an early court definition of obscenity, “you’ll know it when you see it.” Harvard University’s Jill Lepore said that benchmarks of civil discussion are: 1) some ability to engage in criticism of one’s self, 2) recognizing that there is some level of humanity on the other side, and 3) the belief that we are all fallible. Even social media like Craig’s List and facebook have “mechanisms” for monitoring when editorial lines are crossed.

No wonder we are such a failure at civil discourse….in all parts of our lives. My grandmother was a widow for many years and I remember her boyfriend Ed saying what a wonderful family man his brother in law Jimmy Hoffa was (Hoffa was an infamous Teamsters boss who disappeared and was apparently dispatched). Apparently Jimmy’s family discourse was very different from his public discourse and it was his public discourse that got him in the end. Tribal identify certainly simplifies matters… are either in or your are out. It doesn’t appear that we have evolved much beyond tribal identity (are you a this or a that? Which team are you on? Whose side are you on in the divorce?). In fact, when times become really complex, many people run to the simple shelter of tribalism. Wouldn’t it be interesting to change the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s famous song, “Both Sides Now,” to “All Sides Now”?

One pundit suggested that we simply need to focus more on the facts and less on our feelings if we want to promote civil discourse. This clearly was not what the Greek philosophers had in mind when they articulated and promoted patterns for robust and civil public discourse. In fact, it was the responsibility of the citizen to engage in such discourse. Aristotle had no “logos only” rule; logos (logic) was to be teamed with ethos (credibility) and pathos (emotion) if a message was to be persuasive. Clearly civil discourse is intended to be persuasive. Tribal politics only require knowledge of which side you are on; the other side is the enemy.

It is simple to resort to tribalism in the face of strong feelings about important existential values. The historian Richard Hofstadter said in a Time magazine article following the tragic events of Kent State in 1969, that when you mix existential values (e.g. gun control or abortion or who should get healthcare) with politics you get extremism, and naturally, you get extremist rhetoric.

Is it possible to have strong feelings and still engage in civil discourse? I grew up in a home where my father was extremely politically opinionated and conservative. My first thought as a second grader while at recess on the playground when the principal announced that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated was that my father would be pleased. I knew that my father strongly disagreed with the values and actions of the Kennedy administration. How surprised I was to see my father weep over this tragedy and the depths of incivility that were gripping American discourse.

Former Virginia Senator Glen Nye said that civil discourse requires political leaders to take the emotion of their constituents and distill it down to good policy by:

1 Demonstrating that you understand what people feel and how strongly they feel it;

2. Articulating what the various sides share (identifying and building on shared interests);

3. Agreeing to focus on engaging in decision making through robust discussion of merits.

Where have we dispute resolvers heard this? Sounds almost like Interest Based Negotiation 101. Instead of spending 99 percent of our dialog on our differences, might it be possible to unite on those higher level values that we actually share and then negotiate the differences?

So, does it really matter HOW we engage in social and personal discourse? Of course it does. Can we require our public officials to engage in less extremist, binary, good v. evil rhetoric and to find ways to civilly, yet robustly, find common ground and passionately yet openly negotiate important differences? This will be more difficult than tribal rhetoric. This will not make for great extremist talk show material. This will result in better governance.


Merri L. Hanson

Merri L. Hanson is the Director of Peninsula Mediation & ADR in Williamsburg and Hampton Virginia. Peninsula Mediation & ADR provides a comprehensive range of mediation services for family, workplace, EEO, ADA, business, and commercial disputes. Under Merri’s direction, Peninsula Mediation & ADR manages ADR contracts and service delivery throughout… MORE >

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