Climbing the Ladder of Civility with the Help of Civil Discussion*

Civility is not an all or nothing thing; it is more like an ascent involving a set of interactive and increasingly demanding activities and skills.  Civil discussion gives us a leg up as we make that ascent.

ladder photo

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Step One: From Indifference to Active Participation.  Indifference and silence are almost as damaging to democracy as the fear that so often produces them.  Overcoming them is also the first step in moving up the ladder of civility.  In any well designed civll discussion, the format, facilitator, guidelines, and topic (and, consequently, other participants) all encourage active participation and keep it focused.

Step Two: From Active Participation to Conversation.  To rise to the next level and make a more positive contribution to civility, the active participation of a good “bull session” must take on another dimension: it must feature real exchanges between participants, which in turn requires that participants aren’t simply echoing each others’ thoughts but are instead taking different perspectives, suggesting distinctive points of view, and adding new insights.  Here, too, this is usually the result of many factors working together in civil discussion, but a few stand out as critical to helping participants make the step from simple participation to conversation: reliable and varied sources of information, discussion guidelines that emphasize openness and sharing alternative viewpoints and facilitation to back them, and discussion tasks that support real give and take.

Step Three: From Conversation to Co-operation.  The next step up the ladder of civility involves co-operation.  To conversation, co-operation adds the idea of teamwork or working together.  In this case “working together” does not mean agreeing.  Nor does it require “changing one’s mind.”  Instead, it means constructive interaction, which can take many forms: giving or getting help in expressing an idea or building on a thought, working out the implications of a gut feeling or an instinct, or comparing notes.  Yet co-operation can be quite profound in its effects, which can include: broadening one’s understanding, gaining perspective, adding some nuance or detail—not to mention losing one’s fear of those who have different ideas and instead seeing real value in them and their ideas as important. Get two conversationalists together and they will readily explore their disagreements, but get two co-operators together, and they will not only respect their differences, but they will also be grateful for them. They will have achieved a high level of civility, indeed.

The same aspects of civil discussion that encourage the earlier steps encourage the move from conversation to co-operation.  Diverse and reliable information, discussion guidelines, tasks that invite co-operative behavior, and good facilitation can all play a role.

Step Four: From Occasional Co-operation to Habit.  If civility doesn’t become ingrained, there is a natural tendency for people to backslide down the ladder. Repeated practice in the right kind of activities in the right setting, on the other hand, helps civility become a habit—the top “rung” of the ladder of civility. (Notice that, importantly, practice requires a combination of opportunity and effort.)

Civil discussion thus helps us climb the ladder of civility—and keep up on the top rung; it helps us move from indifference to engagement and from there through conversation and co-operation to habit.

*Adapted from Adolf G. Gundersen and Suzanne Goodney Lea, Let’s Talk Politics: Restoring Civility Through Exploratory Discussion, Chapter 4.

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