Civility in Public Discourse

In light of the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona this past weekend and President Obama’s call for “more civility in our public discourse,” I did a quick search through the Barnes & Conti archives to see what—if anything—I could find that was relevant.

Long-time readers of our newsletter might remember the Spring of 2005, when the topic was “Debate and Discourse in 2005.” I quote Barnes & Conti CEO Kim Barnes from that newsletter:

Picture this: an alien anthropologist lands on planet Earth in 2005. The alien makes a point of observing much of what passes for debate in the media, in academia, and in meeting and conference rooms of organizations. The alien might very well conclude that humans engage regularly in the sport of taking turns destroying one another’s ideas. To an alien who had never engaged in this peculiar “sport,” the rules of engagement and scoring system would hardly be obvious…

…Why, then, are so many “debates” characterized either by personal attack and ad hominem argument or, conversely, by public passivity and private cynicism?

…I suspect that all these negative characteristics are true—at least partly—because most of us have had very few opportunities to experience a truly constructive debate. The models we are exposed to are not generally ones we wish to emulate. Fear of conflict or retribution can silence dissent. Ideas are often passed along without being exposed to critical thinking—and some of them are bad ideas. Innovation is stifled when disagreement is not invited, encouraged, and supported. “Political correctness” becomes the enemy of excellence.

Kim Also offered ten ways to deal with unconstructive debate behaviors; I quote three of them below:

Dealing With Unconstructive Debate Behaviors (excerpt)

Some of what passes for debate in today’s polarized media sounds rather more like a screaming match or playground name-calling contest. Unfortunately, as more and more people are exposed to this style of (non) communication, some of it has filtered into corporate meeting rooms and teleconferences. You may one day find yourself facing such a situation, and it is best to be prepared. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. Keep your cool. Never allow an ad hominem argument or accusation to push your defensiveness buttons, or you may find yourself the focus of a feeding frenzy.
    Example: “What is the concern behind that question?”
  2. Stay rational. Your adversary would prefer to fight the issue on an emotional or polarized basis. Your best offense is to remain perfectly reasonable.
    Example: “That’s an interesting point of view…how did you arrive at that conclusion?”
  3. Ask the other person to clarify his or her position or rationale. Do this calmly but persistently until you think you understand it (even though you don’t agree).
    Example: “What is the basis for that position? Explain your rationale to me.”

You can read both articles in their entirety on our website.

Let me conclude by quoting President Obama’s speech last night:

“…let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”

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2 comments on “Civility in Public Discourse
  1. Beth Waitkus says:

    HI there! I’ve written about the exact same topic…see my blog post, “Civil Discourse!” http://bethwaitkus.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/civil-discourse/ Cheers, Beth

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