Sunday, August 30, 2009

And just what is civil discourse?

The notion of what constitutes "civil discourse" is certainly arguable. I'm offering the following thoughts on the topic.

1. For a discourse to have value, both members must have open minds. If one member in a conversation has a closed mind regarding the topic, then it's quite likely that the course of the conversation will slide into incivility. What constitutes an open mind can be debated, as well, naturally. Generally speaking, I think having an open mind means a willingness to be convinced by careful logical arguments and/or evidence. A closed mind is one unwilling to consider any possibility, however remote, of changing one's position on a subject.

Most debates over religion or politics include at least one closed mind, and often two (or more). These aren't often civil discourse - they simply represent opposing position statements. You can continue to offer position statements back and forth indefinitely, and that might be a civil discourse of a sort. Without anyone being willing to consider changing their minds, it's at best an information exchange. For the most part, such conversations descend well outside the range of civil discourse.

For the most part, I dislike such conversations intensely and avoid them as much as possible.

2. A civil discourse avoids using provocative language, which inevitably obscures the point being made. Imagine a conversation you're having with an acquaintance on some topic. You've just voiced an opinion and the response is "You piece of shit! You're an absolutely stupid fucking asshole for thinking that!" You might, of course, actually be a stupid fucking asshole (or not - but that's not the point, is it?), but I doubt if the conversation's going to remain on point from that instant on. Your likely response is either to (a) terminate the conversation immediately or (b) come back in kind, with verbal guns blazing.

Now, rewind the tape, and consider your reaction to the following response. "That's an interesting viewpoint, but have you considered what it might look like from a different perspective?" I hope it's clear from this gedanken experiment that it's a rule of civil conversation that foul language, insults, name-calling, and such simply precludes the possibility of civil discourse.

Another variation: "That's an interesting goddamned viewpoint, but have you fucking considered what it might look like from a different perspective?" Same theme, but a very different sort of reaction is likely.

This is not about being "politically correct" (hereafter, PC) at all! Being PC is to use euphemisms and deliberately not using certain words to avoid offending someone. I was recently watching a re-run of "Blazing Saddles" on a commercial station, and the word "nigger" had been blanked out of the soundtrack wherever it was used. This PC version of "Blazing Saddles" was a grotesque mockery of the original movie - the excision of the "N-word" completely missed the whole point of the story, which was done in a comical mode but had some deeper content than farts around a campfire.

But - as another gedanken experiment - suppose I'm having a discussion with a black man and at some point, I call him a nigger. Yes, I know blacks call each other niggers all the time. Why can't I? Well, of course, no one can tell me what I can or can't do, but one of the nearly inevitable consequences of injecting that word into what had been a civil discourse between a white man and a black man is that it almost certainly changes the whole nature of the conversation. Is it reasonable that black folks can use that word among themselves and I can't? No. Of course not - it's stupid, and constitutes a form of racism. In the Army, of all places, I had a friend who was a black man - he called me a honky and I called him a nigger and we got along just fine. We chose not to be offended by mere words.

But the rules of civil discourse generally preclude using provocative words - not because of some slavish adherence to the rules of PCness, not because of some concern for being offensive (you don't need provocative language to offend someone, of course), but simply because it immediately throws the conversation off point. I'm not particularly worried about offending people. I've done it many times simply by being honest - without cursing, name-calling, or vulgarity. If someone wants to be offended, I can't prevent that. But if the goal is an exchange of ideas in order to convince the other party to think seriously about your point of view, you simply can't descend into language you know is likely to be offensive. It's not an arbitrary rule imposed by some authority figure - it's a fact of life.

Sometimes, people choose to become offended by something you say that has no obvious offensive connotation. They come back at you with invective and name-calling. Not much point to continuing such discourse, unless you want to try to talk them down off their high horse.

Most of us know most the words that are likely to offend. George Carlin enjoyed using them for their shock effect (so do I, occasionally) and even developed a famous list of 7 such words that couldn't be used on television: [Curious, by the way, that shit is #1 and piss is #2 - I always thought it was the other way around] Without straining oneself, I'm sure that this list could be expanded upon considerably, to include, inter alia, a whole litany of racial epithets and slurs: spick, nigger, wop, kike, chink, gook, etc.; as well as slang names for body parts: dick, pussy, asshole, etc.; and various forms of sexual topics: faggot, blowjob, jerking off, rim job, buttfuck, etc.

Words are just words. We probably shouldn't be offended by them, ever, but most of us are, at least occasionally. The fact is that when you use such language, the response is almost inevitably to shift the discourse away from civility. Using them can become a signal to your partner(s) in the conversation that you're not really interested in changing their minds or having a civil conversation. You likely just want to vent your contempt or impress them with your willingness to defy convention. It's an in-your-face way to assert your position on some topic. You're free to do that as much as you wish, naturally, but don't be surprised or offended that someone responds in a way that signals their disrespect for your part in the discourse.

3. If you want your opinion to be respected, you must respect the opinion of other participants in a civil discourse. Rewind the tape once again in my gedanken experiment - now imagine a response to voicing your opinion about something to be "That opinion simply illustrates that your stupidity is monumental." Note that no typical curse words are involved. [And it's a logical possibility is that you are monumentally stupid. Or, as is often the case, it might be that the speaker is confusing ignorance for stupidity.] This is manifestly a disrespectful statement, nevertheless. I've voiced comparable statements in conversations with friends and acquaintances, but only in two quite different circumstances - (i) in jest, or (ii) in absolute sincerity when I have, in fact, lost respect for the opinion of the other party in the conversation. At that point, I know the conversation is pointless and I have no wish to carry on with it.

4. About the so-called Golden Rule: some recent conversations have suggested to me that this isn't the cure-all I once thought it to be. In its basic form, it says one should treat others as one wishes to be treated. This sounds all well and good, but what if I'm a masochist, and I want others to beat me up? Does that mean I'm obligated by the Golden Rule to reciprocate and beat on everyone? I'm not really allowed to impose my wishes on anyone with the expectation that they'll respond the way I want. People are notoriously different in their responses within a conversation. In general, rather than imposing my wishes on them, I'm going to take the position that how I treat you isn't necessarily how I wish to be treated, nor is it simply a response to the way you treat me ("tit for tat"). Rather, when I engage in discourse, I enjoy having a bit of fun, and I thrive on having people challenge me. So long as the conversation is stimulating, I want to continue.

I'm not necessarily hoping to change your mind, although I hope to see at least some evidence that I might be able to do so. We can agree to disagree in many cases, but what I want to obtain from a conversation is: stimulation for additional thought, new insight, new information, new points of view I hadn't considered, new ideas. If you choose to ignore or dismiss everything I say without offering any coherent argument, then further conversation is pointless, and I'm going to terminate it, if you haven't. Should you choose to lace your conversation with pointlessly provocative words all the time, I can handle it, but it's a distraction I could do without, for the most part. It's not that I'm offended by it - it's just an annoyance if it dominates the discourse. The occasional expletive here and there isn't any problem for me - only when the talk reminds me of conversations in a military barracks does it become an issue for me.