On Civil Discourse

My friends Sean and Bob and I got into it yesterday about politics on my blog. In the end, I felt battered and exhausted, and I don’t think that was, necessarily, anybody’s goal. I have to think there’s a better way to do things, but I don’t know if anyone remembers what that is or if I do.

Since I prefer to start from scratch (that’s just the way I think), I start with an empty space, whether cyber- or in the “real” world.

Then I put two people there.

Person 1 says, “I’d like to see this happen” and Person 2 says, “Cool. Let’s figure out a way to have that happen”.

Or Person 1 says, “I’d like to see this happen” and Person 2 says, “Can’t help you there”.

Or Person 1 says, “”I’d like to see this happen” and Person 2 says, “I don’t think you should. Here’s why”.  I don’t know that I even have the heart to have that conversation, but I know people do it and need to do it as part of moving forward as a society or family or what have you.

I’m clear that, under no circumstances, should Person 1 say, “I’d like to see this happen”  and Person 2 say, “What are you? A f***ing idiot?!”

Years ago, there was a Saturday Night Life skit featuring Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin, based on “Point/Counterpoint” — a “60 Minutes” where Shana Alexander and some guy I don’t remember would debate a point of policy. In the SNL parody, Ackroyd would always end with the line “Jane, you ignorant slut…” and then go on his rant. It was funny then, because it wasn’t real life and I’m sure there were times when most of us would like to call each other out in this way. It’s just not helpful and at least I don’t have the stomach for it, even if I go on a rant in the same way. Given that, I should stop speaking when I feel this way. So, civil discourse (both in the sense of “polite” and in the sense of “civics”) should have at least that as a rule: No name calling.

Going deeper, there should be no personal attacks of any sort. Any sentence that starts with “You should” or “you should not” should be removed before it gets spoken. Sentences which begin with “I believe” or “I think” or “I’d like” should be taken at face value. They should be responded with “”I believe” or “I think” or “I’d like” statements. It should be included why Person 1 or Person 2 believes what they believe — their source or the experience that leads them to say whatever it is that is said.

The other person should then state what they agree with. It should be noted that both people agree on this issue and it should be clarified that both people do actually agree on these points.

These agreed on points are recorded and set aside, with consensus being built there, and some progress being made.


Un-agreed on points can be either set aside for later and worked through in much the same way or just left alone.

Other rules:

1) If you can’t play nice, you can’t play  — at least in my space.  Feel free to do it somewhere else, but not here. And don’t tell me that you’re doing it. And don’t send someone else to say you’re doing it. I don’t want to hear, “but over there, they are saying…” because a) it gets lost in translation, b) it’s done to provoke anxiety or fear and that’s not helpful, c) it’s often done as a way of playing what Eric Berne would call “Let’s you and him fight”. Been there, done that. This is where it’s gotten us.

2) If you don’t believe in the game, you can’t play. If your ultimate point is that the discussion or the discussion space should not exist, you shouldn’t be there.  No one needs to defend their existence, including me.

3) I actually like the phrase, “my esteemed colleague from…”. Even if it is only politeness or a formality, it’s positive politeness and positive formality. Maybe we should say that.

4) All policy should be driven by actual good for others, not just looking good. No “grandstanding” for it’s own sake, only “grandstanding” for others’ well-being is allowed. Maybe no grandstanding at all.



All people — regardless of who they are (and I won’t do categories here. If you’re a person, you can speak and be heard)– are worthy to speak and have their say.


That’s all I have for now. I will abide be these rules, and — if I don’t — I will apologize, figure out why I didn’t and try to do it differently.


As I think it’s a good model, I think if this was done in Washington and in the press and society in general, we could break the downward spiral that we now find ourselves in.











4 thoughts on “On Civil Discourse

  1. I think you and I will always have our perspectives that run counter, but I would always want it to be civil discourse. I can strive more to make it not just civil, but friendly discourse though. That will be my goal if your blog has political content in it and I feel compelled to comment. At any rate, I will read over my posts from your earlier blog to see if I was overtly antagonistic, but although I believe I was civil, I surely wasn’t striving for friendly, so I can do better ;).

  2. Sean: I have been thinking about this since you wrote it and it strikes me that maybe I have been asking the wrong question all along. Since I think of you (and Bob, and most people I know) as a friend, I assumed that we will ALL approach conversations, public and private, as “friendly”. If politics was all we had in the way of a relationship, than this would be a TRAGIC loss. But it’s not because it’s NOT — think of you as a loving and supportive husband to your wife, a singer, an actor, a man of faith. The fact that we don’t ALWAYS agree on *politics* is really of little consequence,

    Bob, in the same way, is a fine and faithful man and a good father and a hard worker. None of this is worth losing a friendship over, but is worth losing the fighting over.

    In the same way, the people in Washington have (I’d like to think, anyway) many facets to them. This politics thing is their *day job*. I know that there has been a book recently about Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan and how they were buddies after work. That is, they were friends who duked it out (figuratively) at work **** then let it go ****. Even if politics IS important, and it IS, it’s only that way because it’s not the only thing there is.

    Brinksmanship narrows the focus to litmus tests and loyalty and who-gets-what — a zero sum game — so maybe we need to ask for FRIENDLY conversation between politicians, and *settle for* civility on a bad day.

    That’s what I think has been missing for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know why or how it got that way, but it seems to be that way in America today.

    That’s what this particular piece was trying to address and I thank you for your input, friend.



  3. If you want to solve the “homeless problem”, and your solution is to kill all the homeless people, is that a good solution? You CANNOT ever say “I don’t care about the consequences”. You CANNOT ever say “I don’t care about what you have to say” – which is what you did, and what prompted my reaction. And you deserved it. And this blog is SO out of line, you hypocrite.

    1. Bob, it’s good to hear from you. I’m astounded that you’re replying to a blog from 2013, but I’m glad to hear from you. Whatever works. So, you’re probably right. I am a hypocrite depending on which day you catch me, but I like to think that , on any given day, I believe what I say. That’s probably not saying much but I’m trying. Ok. I DO believe in civil discourse. I know how to do it, and more often than not (at least in the past) was able to. That said, I have seen people’s mental locks snap into place re: discourse with me, and with many other fine people along the way. At that point, I want to scream, because they’re not listening. The entire Trump band likes to “anger the libs”, and in doing so, they will do anything. The only way I can stay sane is to simply refuse to argue. If, on one of those days, I yelled at you, I am sorry.
      That doesn’t mean I wasn’t right in whatever I thought, or needed to take a break from, but I *was* wrong because I hurt a *friend*. For that, I apologize.

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