Civil Discourse Revisited
By Tibor Machan - January 22, 2011

We were having lunch and the topic of how to frame a friendly, productive holiday conversation about politics and such came up. I had been thinking about what role a host might play in upholding standards of civility and what one can do if things get a bit ugly. For that they surely can get, especially in the current atmosphere which appears to contain very little in the way of argumentation and analysis and a whole lot of venting, name calling, besmirching, ridiculing, and caricaturing even by the most erudite of commentators.

One reason for the abundance of heat in and the absence of light from most discussions on TV, radio and even the dinner table appears to be that nearly all the moves have already been made by all the sides championing their cause, so what then is left? Few of the parties seem to be upgrading their stance, improving their evidence, honing their reasoning, probably because ofter years and years of believing as they do and repeatedly mulling it over, there seems to be no use for going through the exercise again and again. Grandma will remain true to her faith whatever the grand kids bring back from college bull sessions or even their courses in the way of challenges to her ideas. And the same would seem to go for grandpa and mom and dad and brother and sister, even. So mostly the family sticks to trivia or play – sports work well, since there is little at stake and the passions would tend to be shallow. (Why get all bent out of shape about Auburn's various rivalries or the next Superbowl?) And even if one holds views one considers quite sound and important to promulgate, who has the time for this? On TV and radio the objective appears to be mainly to keep the floor, learn how to speak without breathing, wearing down everyone else, since the time limit is normally quite onerous.

But in fact it could be much better than this, from the Thanksgiving dinner table to the talk shows, if only a few points were kept in focus. Here is my own list, by no means complete:

* Recall that there is always time to go through the reasons why one holds one's views and to gain the benefit of critical objections and insights from thoughtful friendly others, even if in the end one wants to be triumphant. It really isn't about subduing one's interlocutors but about making a decent effort to reach sound conclusions, to get at whatever truth is available to us.

* Recall, also, that while on some topics – religion, politics, child raising – one may different quite seriously with one's friends, colleagues, relatives and neighbors, there is much more to life than just these areas of interest. There are people one knows who fervently disagree with one's political views, even may dislike one for holding them, while they are congenial when it comes to great many of other concerns. I have learned over the years that even some of those I most sincerely and seriously find objectionable in one area can turn out to be, quite surprisingly, candidates for comrades when it comes to other issues. (Parents, especially, may find that people whose politics or economics they disapprove of share their own ideas about raising children and handling the household budget.) One's politics or religion isn't everything about the person, at least in most cases. So if time is limited, perhaps talking about movies or traveling can be a friendly territory.

* Often when we dislike others it isn't anything dire or morally important, merely a matter of a difference in style and taste. And it is quite OK to insist on one's style and taste for oneself without insisting that everyone else share these – they can all be quite swell people but not like what you like. I do not like baseball or football or even basketball but am very keen on tennis. Others in my circles do not share this but it would be serious folly to be critical of them for this. My favorite color needn't be anyone else's, nor my favorite food or even restaurant or make of car. Indeed, some people just rub me the wrong way even though there is nothing I can identify that would deserve condemnation. We don't all have to get along on all counts, despite some Utopian thinking along such lines.

* There is much more but let me just add one idea that I have found very useful: If one wants to bring up a testy topic, one that's pretty likely to sit badly with one's companions, it usually helps to do what I call some meta-talk, or preparatory talk. Something like, "I will make some points now that may very well be objectionable to some of you but please bear with me and let's run through them gently."

So, have a good dinner visiting the folks and do not focus so intensely on how much you disagree. And heed the advice of one of my daughters: you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.

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