Philosophical Analysis: Civil Discourse
Philosophy 201: Introduction to Philosophy
October 20, 2018
Civil Discourse is a term used frequently by politicians or political commentators, typically in complaining about how their ideas have been treated by a political opponent. The term involves two words, and both could have more than one meaning, but taken together, they have a particular meaning to me, which the following paragraphs will describe. Jim Lehrer, former Executive Editor of the PBS NewsHour, said, ”I am in the civil discourse business. I think it takes all kinds. And more power to everybody.” (Brainyquote.com, 2018) Used in this manner, it is clear that Lehrer’s concept of the term is inclusionary. Lehrer’s job at PBS and his role as a respected moderator of Presidential debates involves facilitating the transmission of ideas. Taken as a whole, the term takes on political significance – civil discourse is not a casual chat about the weather between neighbors; that is simply conversation. To explore the meaning of the phrase, it is necessary to break it down into its component parts.
The word “civil” has, in my philosophy, two distinct meanings, though each of these meanings can be nuanced. The first meaning of the word civil implies civility, which in turn implies politeness, respectfulness, and observation of cultural communicational rules. Roberts’ Rules of Order exemplify civility codified – observance of these rules of debate essentially guarantee civility. However, such code bound rules are not needed to ensure civility. Cultural norms that most people learn as children (hopefully) are enough to foster civility. These norms include taking turns in conversation, expressing ideas calmly, supporting ideas with reason, listening to the ideas of others, refraining from insulting others because their ideas differ from one’s own, not shouting down the other – all these are cultural hallmarks of civility. So, in order to have a civil conversation, one must be polite and observe cultural communicational norms. The Principle of Charity, introduced by Professor Jon Dorbolo in Oregon State University’s Philosophy 201 course is a useful construct in ensuring civility. As Professor Dorbolo instructs, the Principle of Charity does not require agreement, but it does impose upon us the obligation to consider each argument in its strongest light (Dorbolo, 2018). Active listening, asking clarifying questions to ensure understanding, and allowing the message to be presented in accordance with the messenger’s intent are all acts that are consistent with this definition of civility.
The second meaning of the word civil is more nuanced, and has to do with relationship to the public sphere. The term “civil engineering” for example, relates to engineering in pursuit of public good – the design of public roads, bridges, parks, water treatment systems, etc. are all examples of civil engineering because they imply the application of engineering expertise in pursuit of public resources. When used in this manner, the term civil would seem to preclude private matters. Thus, while two people might have a conversation about a fence that separates their private property, and may conduct themselves politely and in conformance with cultural communicational norms, this conversation would not meet the second meaning of the word civil. It would be a private conversation conducted with civility, but it would not be a civil conversation, because it does not concern matters of public good. This component further limits the meaning of civil in the context of my usage of the term. To be civil, and to meet both components, the discussion must be civilized (that is, observing cultural communicational norms) and regarding subject related to public good.
It is noted that ideas about the public good vary widely. Political ideologies are sometime diametrically opposed, leading to deep divisions and strident arguments. It is not uncommon for deeply held notions of what is best for the public to cause strong emotions on both sides of the political spectrum. However, civility requires that proponents of each side of an argument give weight to opposing positions and to consider them in the manner in which they are intended: as an expression of the public good.
The term “discourse,” in this context, means the verbal exchange of ideas, concepts, and expressions of reasoning. When I use the term “verbal” here, I am referring both to written and oral communication. Another term that might be used in place of discourse is the term “debate,” if debate is used in its informal context – that is, not necessarily bound by Roberts’ Rules of Order. Discourse does not require conversation, per se – that is, it does not require that two parties engage in a direct conversation in which one person states and idea, the next proposes an argument or states another, competing idea, and so on. Discourse need not be direct in the same way a debate between candidates is a direct exchange. Discourse can also involve printed media, such as articles in newspapers or magazines, billboards, even protest speech, songs, signs, etc. Discourse in this context might be used to describe all transmission of ideas through speech or writing.
When put together, discourse is the noun that defines an activity and civil is a modifier. Without the modifier “civil,” discourse could be engaged in uncivilly, even if it related to the public good. Or, alternatively, discourse could be engaged in civilly (using cultural communicational norms) but in relation to private matters. Neither of these examples would fit the definition of civil discourse as it is used in my vocabulary. In order to meet the definition, the discourse must meet both definitions of civil. Private discourse, conducted civilly, might otherwise be termed “polite conversation.” Discourse about the public good conducted without civility could otherwise be termed “political discord.”
In summary, then, the term civil discourse, in the manner in which I use it, means the written or oral transmission of ideas, concepts and statements of reason regarding matters of the public good, conducted in accordance with cultural communicational norms. In the current political milieu, it is, unfortunately, in short supply. When Representative Joe Wilson, Republican from South Carolina, shouted “You lie!” during Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in 2009, he violated accepted rules of behavior in such a situation – he violated cultural communicational norms (CNN, 2009). He thus became uncivil. Obama’s speech was civil discourse – Wilson’s outburst was not. When protestors march peacefully, carrying signs conveying their message without using derogatory or obscene language, that is civil discourse. Insults shouted by bystanders are not. When President Trump discusses the federal deficit, trade negotiations, and immigration policies and the reasons for his decisions and positions on these issues, it is civil discourse. When he calls Senator Warren “Pocahontas,” or Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary,” or mocks or mimics political opponents derisively, it is not civil discourse. When liberal protestors last week confronted Senator Jeff Flake in the capitol rotunda last week and shouted at him for his potential vote for Brett Kavanaugh, that was not civil discourse.
To be sure, there are those who do not attach importance to the civility of political discourse. I am not one of them. Daniel Lubesky, founder and CEO of KIND, and winner of the Hispanic Heritage Award for Entrepreneurship, said “Civilized discourse demands critical thinking, self-reflexiveness, soberheaded analysis.” (Brainyquote.com, 2018) I agree, and hope that the level of political discord will be attenuated after the next presidential election and that the nation can return to a reasonable level of civil discourse.
Brainyquote.com. (2018, October 17). Disourse Quotes. Retrieved from BrainyQuote.com:
CNN. (2009, September 10). Rep. Wilson shouts, ‘You lie’ to Obama during speech. Retrieved from CNN
Dorbolo, J. L. (2018, October 2018). Intoduction to Philosophy. Retrieved from Oregon State Instructure: