Returning to Civil Discourse
The path to unity starts with commonplace humility.
Garrett Kincaid — Aug. 8, 2021
Last year, I wrote a blog post called “A Lack of Civil Discourse.” In it, I talk about how (at least in the U.S.) we are failing to respect opposing views and tend to be dismissive or self-righteous. That post took a pretty cynical tone, or at least it was written in a cynical state of mind.
I have fallen into bouts with cynicism, where I’ll reel through a series of thoughts in a downward spiral. A few of those fear-of-the future-fueled frenzies had me convinced that the only way up was for us to bounce off rock bottom.
But those are just thoughts that I have. They don’t represent what I truly believe. So, here is my optimistic take on the issues of division and our lack of civil discourse.
The State of the Game
The division is palpable. We all know it and feel it and probably hate it. The “structure” of the divide — left or right — is mapped onto just about every conversation that involves an opinion. What should be a spectrum is being coerced into binary, and no one seems interested in understanding others’ positions beyond a label.
Are you with me or against me? Those are often your only two options. No way could your set of diverse personal experiences — your thoughts and ideas, background and upbringing — combine to form a stance that is any more complex than “right” or “left,” right?
We’re in a hostile environment. By entering a conversation, you risk personal conflict. To avoid that looming conflict, conversations too often become inauthentic or stagnantly surface-level. And shallow conversation can be just as bad as confrontational ones. It is increasingly rare that a conversation is what it should naturally be — civl, respectful, and one in which all parties are looking to learn from one another rather than trying evangelize their own opinion.
In this divisive environment, there’s an incentive to conceal our opinions, feign agreement, or align with the majority. That’s how we avoid conflict. But we all know how how valuable it is to have a free exchange of ideas, for everyone’s voice to be heard and their opinion welcomed. That’s what’s lacking. Free expression and the civil exchange of ideas are the foundation of the Socratic method, the scientific method, and liberal democracy. Expression is a privilege that we should protect for one another on the simple grounds that we each deserve dignity and respect.
Despite this division, we can return to civil discourse. We can bring it into the world in our own conversations, foster it in others’, and maintain it universally.
The way back to civil discourse is through humility.
Below are three ideas from philosophy, echoed across time and space, that ring true today. Each corresponds to a different type of humility and, if understood and embodied, could lead us back to civil discourse. I’ve enlisted the help of some great minds, using quotes to emphasize the ubiquity of the struggle we face.
Memento Mori: Remember you must die.
The less we feel we have in common, the greater the divide becomes. Even the most fervent pair of opponents have something in common. If nothing else, we are all mortal. We, along with everything else in the universe, trend toward disorder, suffer, decay, and die. And that’s okay. More importantly than it being okay, it is true. (It may be the only thing we know for certain.) Death is part of the shared gift of life.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many people liked you, agreed with you, praised you, followed you, listened to you, or read you. The speakers and the listeners, the leaders and the followers, the liked and disliked alike will die. That’s unifying! And it should be freeing. It should be a reason to do the right thing — to be open-minded and to treat others well.
We are intimately connected with each other because we all must die.
And, we all want to figure shit out before we die. What we have in common is not our opinions themselves but the experience of developing opinions. It’s a fundamental connection and one that characterizes the human condition. And it’s one that we should always keep in mind: everyone’s just trying to figure shit out.
Our shared goal is understanding, and civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas is the best way we have of learning about the world and ourselves. So, if we’re going to figure anything out before we die, we have to cooperate and aid each other in that pursuit.
If you remember that you will die, you will fill your life with good content. If you remember that everyone dies, then you will empathize with others’ struggle to understand themselves and the world. Disrespectful discourse is neither good life-content nor empathetic.
This is the humility of mortality: “My opponents will die and so will I.”
It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live. — Marcus Aurelius
Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death. — Socrates
Death. The certain prospect of death could sweeten every life with a precious and fragrant drop of levity — and now you strange apothecary souls have turned it into an ill-tasting drop of poison that makes the whole of life repulsive. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Do good for the sake of the good itself.
How would your conversations change if you considered it your duty protect civil discourse?
The freedom of expression is inherently good. Simply for that reason, it is something we should promote and preserve.
But by protecting that freedom, we invite friction and discomfort. Civil discourse is challenging and requires us to face our faults in logic, biases, and blindspots.
Of course no one wants to feel dumb or acknowledge that they did something immoral. But that’s what we must do to become ethical and wise. Our natural operating state is to preserve our egos, not to protect the freedoms of our opponents. We naturally ignore or justify our wrongdoings and misconceptions. By dodging discomfort and dismissing the opposition, we fail to fulfill our duty to the good of civil discourse.
We have to combat and overcome that tendency. Our duty is to do what we identify as good; it is not to fortify our egos or to capture comfort. Being dismissive or closed-minded might make us feel better by dodging discomfort, but it is not in the service of the good.
It is our duty to pursue and uphold what we believe to be good in the world, for the sake of the good itself. Civil discourse is inherently good, and it is our duty to preserve it.
This is the humility of duty: “There are greater goods than what makes me feel good.”
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’ — Marcus Aurelius
As the sun does not wait for prayers and incantations to be induced to rise, but immediately shines and is saluted by all: so do you also not wait for clapping of hands, and shouts and praise to be induced to do good, but be a doer of good voluntarily, and you will be beloved as much as the sun. — Epictetus
No one knows it all. Everyone is always learning.
If everyone saw each conversation as an opportunity to obtain a nugget of truth from another person, then fewer people would spout their opinions as if they were facts; fewer people would be closed-minded; fewer people would be hostile towards the opposition. We must recognize the value of the opposition. It is the meeting of opposing views that allows conversation to solve so many problems.
As I said, we all long for understanding. We all want to figure shit out. And what we must acknowledge is twofold:
- We’ll never know it all.
- If we’re going to get anywhere, it won’t be on our own.
One of the main causes of today’s division is that we readily condemn our opposition — claim that they are irredeemable because of their current opinions. On the whole, we have lost faith that our opposition will do the right thing. “How could they be right if they disagree with me?” one might think.
In a conversation, it doesn’t really matter who’s right because the case is that neither side is completely right. That means that both sides have something to learn from the other.
You don’t have to have faith that your opponent will do the right thing or think the right way. What is truly lacking is faith that others — even our opposition — will recognize and admit when they are wrong.
We disregard others’ opinions and avoid conversation with them on the assumption that we will disagree. We’re intolerant of those who aren’t as tolerant as us. Do you see the problem?
I heard he’s a burrito guy. I’m a taco gal, so I don’t want to talk to him. I know we wouldn’t get along. Burrito people are so stubborn and closed-minded about the issue of rice inequality.
On the grounds that others are closed-mined, we close our minds to them and their ideas. The effect is the cause, and the cause is the effect. It’s a positive (but really very negative) -feedback loop.
That’s a cycle we need to break. We need to expect each other to be open-minded and allow for each other to change our minds — without a “gotcha”-moment. What if we didn’t itch to be given credit for changing someone’s mind? What if we didn’t expect the world to conform to our opinions?
If we were more humble, to the point where no one needed to be right, we would all be more comfortable conversing, interacting, and exchanging ideas. There would be more care and compromise, less concealment and misrepresentation of truth, and more progress and unity.
Conversations can be downright magical; a single one can change a life. The only thing required to make that possible is for each of us to be convinced that we can learn something from one another. That’s simple! We can achieve that.
This is the humility of knowledge: “I don’t know everything. I can learn something from anyone.”
To know and to think we know not is the crown. Not to know and to think we know is the affliction. — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows. — Epictetus
Neither of us really knows anything well and good. But this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, since I do not know anything, do not suppose I know something. — Socrates
The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ — David Foster Wallace
Truth cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain-top to the valley. — Jiddu Krishnamurti
To repair the division we face, we must revive and promote civil discourse. These three types of humility — mortality, duty, and knowledge — are prerequisites for civil discourse.
The path to unity starts with understanding and incorporating these ideas, which will lead us to commonplace humility. Only then will we be able to unsheathe civil discourse and vanquish division, victorious in our collective fight for unity.
- Meditations — Marcus Aurelius
- The Enchiridion — Epictetus
- Tao Te Ching — Lao Tzu
- The Apology — Plato
- “This is Water” – David Foster Wallace
Did you find this optimistic? Is humility the way? Let me know what you think and thank you for reading!