A Lack of Civil Discourse
Polarization isn’t an increase in opposition; it's a decrease in our tolerance for opposition.
July 5, 2020
The greatest threat to American culture and to our nation’s progress is a lack of civil discourse. I say “American culture” and “America’s progress” because this is an American problem. We are staggeringly polarized.
There’s a misconception about it all though. Polarization isn’t an increase in opposition; it's a decrease in our tolerance for opposition.
In my self-published book, The Pursuit of Purpose, I share an idea about the value of discussion:
Ideas, opinions, and experiences are idle and benign in the absence of conversation.
Here, I'll take that a step further to say that thoughts and opinions remain idle and benign if they are not tested against opposing thoughts and opinions. How're you supposed to evaluate an idea without comparing it to an alternative? Isn’t that the basis of acquiring knowledge, formulating an argument, or scientifically arriving at conclusions? Aren’t we accustomed to putting uncertain ideas through such scrutiny?
If so, then why, in common conversation, are we so averse to exploring views that oppose our own? There is so much value in that process. Either you learn something from the other person that you want to incorporate into your perspective, or you continue to disagree but learn how to better articulate your stance. It’s all positive!
Approach conversations with a genuine interest in hearing about another person’s thoughts and experiences, and both parties will benefit — regardless of how much you disagree.
The worst part about the division we face is that people dismiss others before even hearing their opinions. Often, one will dismiss or condemn another because of a label — like a political party — before learning whether they actually disagree. Even the implied or assumed opposition has become the enemy. And that’s where the danger lies.
If two people on "different sides" actually agree on an issue, they'll never know because we refuse to discuss with the assumed opposition. Where do you go from there? Rather than challenge our own ideas, we go talk to someone with whom we agree. Where’s the growth or progress in that?
Where’s the new information for you to develop a more informed opinion? I’ll tell you. It’s absent — because of a lack of civil discourse.
The character of civil discourse is where all parties have the goal of learning for themselves instead of educating one another. Can we agree that this breed of conversation is all too rare?
We can’t educate each other with our opinions. My opinion isn’t knowledge or fact; it’s my interpretation of what I know. At best, my opinion can be food for thought for others (like this blog post, for instance), and that’s how it should be.
For a conversation to be productive and enriching, all parties have to be open-minded. Herein lies the crux of the lack of civil discourse: Too few people are willing to discussing their opinion for a fear of conflict. No one should feel ashamed for having or expressing their opinion. And there should be no shame in changing your mind.
In conversation, you may often feel like you can’t let your guard down and open up because the other side is trying to change your mind. That shouldn’t be their goal. If you want to change your mind, you should be able to do it on your own accord. No one else needs to get credit for it.
The worst effect of a lack of civil discourse is that it threatens individuality. People either fall in line or don't have enough exposure to ideas to formulate their own opinions. Maybe others don't respect our views and you feel obligated to adopt their opinions. Maybe you have such a lack of exposure to alternative views that you never have a chance to update your opinion.
And if we lose individuality, the groups become more extreme. Extreme viewpoints are those from which people dismiss, discredit, and disregard the opposition — remaining voluntarily ignorant to the merit and validity of alternatives.
Individuality can't exist without the process of learning and growth. That process is stunted by closed-mindedness. If the extremes of opinion are defined by being willfully ignorant of opposing views, then no one on those extremes can be considered a true individual. Failing to be open-minded encourages group-thought and a subscription to a group mentality, which is the clearest diversion from individuality. Employ open-mindedness and due consideration to remain an independent thinker.
To outrightly oppose someone’s entire worldview is to be closed-minded and ignorant of the common ground that we share with each other. We need to stop seeing others and their opinions as antagonists. Opposing views are more like competitors or teachers than enemies. That friction is necessary and formative.
If you consider yourself to be an independent individual and the protagonist of your own narrative, then your enemy — the antagonist — should be ignorance. Choose to know many perspectives, don't reject any counterarguments without due consideration, and synthesize your own, independent view.
Let’s not stunt our growth as a nation or as a society by dismissing people’s views. No one has to change minds, and no one is in a position to “educate” others on why their opinion is more akin to fact. We should develop respect for the opposition. That’s really what it comes down to. If everyone respected each other and their opinions, we’d all live in a greater state of harmony, with a stronger sense of collective clarity as to what is best for us as citizens and for our country.