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Friday, October 24, 2014 | Last updated: 5:47am

Incivility derails productive political dialogue



The Arizona legislature has issues. It has issues with immigrants, it has issues with homosexuals and it has issues with guns, to name just a few. But perhaps an even more problematic issue is how unhealthy civil discourse can often emerge around such divisive topics.

First of all, civil discourse is just what it sounds like: good-faith, respectful dialogue about social and political issues that usually takes place within a public forum. Those forums can be anything from town halls and community gyms to online message boards. Civil discourse is not individuals shouting each other down at debates, calling each other names on cable news programs or attacking each other’s character in online comments.

One problem with uncivil discourse is that it often distorts our discussion of a topic, thus distracting us from the issue at hand. Consider for a moment if someone has ever called you an idiot or attacked your character during a debate. If so, one of five things likely happened: You responded in kind, you became flustered and forgot your point, you just decided to ignore the other person or walked away, you acquiesced out of fear of conflict or you attempted to defuse the situation so that the debate could continue civilly. Only one out of five of those outcomes attempts to return to the topic.

However, all five are natural and justifiable responses to being attacked, especially in a public forum. In fact, the publicity of the attack likely only serves to increase the likelihood of one of the four bad results. This is because when our character is attacked, we often take that attack personally and get upset.

Proper civil discourse allows us to maximize democratic values. Individuals have highly subjective beliefs and desires, but they exist within societies. And while it is impossible to reach a unanimous decision in large democracies, it is possible to reach a conclusion that most can agree with as fair, provided everyone has an equal voice and opportunity to use it. Civil discourse increases the opportunity for fair outcomes.

However, once you begin to coerce or suppress the opinions of others through aggressive rhetoric, you are creating a debate and process unlikely to produce fair outcomes. And so while it is certainly within one’s rights to shame others for their beliefs, it’s not so clear that one should do so. In addition, it’s also not clear why one should need to resort to defamatory language to get a point across.

While walking around the UA campus, many of you will undoubtedly come across things that you find reprehensible or not to your liking. Perhaps it’s images of fetuses on the UA Mall, or maybe people are telling you that you’re not allowed to smoke or that you’re going to hell. Whatever the case, if you want to express disagreement, then organize a public forum with the goal of respectful dialogue and engage those people in a respectful manner.

University campuses are places of “higher learning,” and while they may carry reputations of a liberal ethos, a good argument is still a good argument. If you have a point to make, be civil about it. Regardless of the strength of your argument, hiding it behind aggressive rhetoric will only serve to upset those that you are trying to convince and make your point harder to understand. And if you can’t make your point without attacking others, perhaps your point needs some work. The best way to convince people is by engaging in civil discourse.


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