Rules for Civil Discourse

People are bad at talking about divisive issues in a way that is productive. I think that the norm is for one of two things to happen when people discuss issues about which they’re passionate. The first possibility is that those around them will agree with everything they say, strengthening pre-existing biases. The second is that someone will raise a contrary viewpoint, resulting in an all-out war of words. Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. I don’t know what most people are actually like, as I do not know most people; they might be much better at dialogue than I think they are. Nevertheless, this tendency toward polarization and toxic disagreement is real, and it is a problem. People need to be able to disagree without being at each other’s throats.

Here are some principles that I try to follow in order to avoid starting/exacerbating ideological flame-wars while still discussing controversial issues publicly:

Recognize that every opinion you express is an invitation for criticism or disagreement

When you say something about a controversial or politically charged topic, you should expect some resistance from people who disagree with you. This can be a sign that you have said something interesting that is worth engaging with. It can also be a sign that you’ve said something stupid. In any case, when you share an opinion, expect others to share contrary opinions. Even more, expect others to respond in ways that might annoy you or make you mad, and do your best to prepare yourself for it.

Attack ideas, not people

The quickest way to inject unnecessary drama into an argument is by calling one of the participants an idiot. Remember, smart people can believe dumb things. The way to convince people that your ideas are better than theirs is through reasoned argument, not through name-calling. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Ad hominem attacks are counterproductive; they make you sound like a childish fool.

Sometimes, it can be tempting to comment on someone’s critical thinking abilities (or lack thereof). This is a bad idea, even in cases when the person in question is demonstrating pretty severe deficiencies in critical thinking. When you tell someone that they’re thinking poorly, they will likely ignore everything else you say. In contrast, if you explain specifically what about their reasoning you think is wrong, they are more likely to continue engaging with you.

Don’t play to win, play to learn

Every disagreement is an opportunity to learn something. It’s possible that your views are wrong, and challenges to them from other intelligent people might lead you to change your mind. This is a good thing. Clinging to bad beliefs for the purpose of winning an argument is stupid (obviously).

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t make the best arguments that you can for your position. Productive debate requires that both sides make the strongest case that they can for their position. In the end, one side may or may not triumph over the other. Regardless, everyone will learn something. When you try to make a convincing argument, you need to think carefully about what you believe and to what extent the evidence actually supports your belief. Likewise, you need to consider the arguments of the other side and rebut them. As a result, you will think more clearly about the issue at hand.

Remember, you’re not as smart as you think you are

Arrogance is the enemy of learning. If you think you already know what you need to know, then you have no reason to listen to people who disagree with you. Chances are, many of the beliefs you hold are flawed or flat-out wrong. As a result, it might be a really good thing for someone to come along and change your mind. You get smarter by listening to other people, not by ignoring anyone who challenges your presuppositions.

*  *  *

I think that if everyone tried to follow these rules, then the world would be a much better place. Charity is sorely lacking in our political discourse, these days (not that it has ever been present). If we focus on pursuing the truth instead of demonstrating our intellectual or moral superiority over others when we discuss controversial topics, then we are far more likely to come to some kind of agreement. So let’s do that. Let’s argue vigorously, but treat people with kindness and respect. Let’s seriously consider contrary viewpoints in their strongest form. And of course, let’s change our minds when we’re wrong. Otherwise we’re doomed to stay as dumb as we are. Which is pretty dumb.


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