The End of Civil Discourse? I’m Sick and Tired of It!

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There’s no shortage of discourse and debate out there right now, but what happened to keeping it civil? All too often, what passes for debate on politics or the economy or the environment is little more than a steady stream of sensationalistic attacks and unreasoned cajoling.

Western societies have been having a tough time of late. The global economic downturn, political division, and general uneasiness and unrest appear the norm. There are no doubt many pressing issues needing our attention. So it would seem that the need for civil discourse has never been greater. But in the many debates currently raging at political rallies, emanating from media outlets, and disseminated through social networking, blogs, etc., civility in the discourse is often unfortunately quite conspicuous by its absence.

For our important discussions to be truly civil in nature, genuine learning needs to take precedence over political orientation or conviction. A sincere, open, and unabashedly honest pursuit of understanding and the greater truth needs to supersede ideology and individual passion. But one doesn’t even have to be a “news junkie” to realize how absent a discussion of that character is among the talking heads on television and radio. Almost without exception, programs purportedly designed to ‘inform’ and help all of us understand are dominated by commentators and other participants who seek only to attack one another’s motives and perspectives, and cajole others into accepting various points of view of their own. Even average conversations on the street about the important matters of the day seem to have taken on an unnecessarily harsh and inhospitable tone of late. All this at a time when the need for civil discourse could arguably be no greater.

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In my latest book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), I not only make the case for the great need we have for an honest and civil discussion of the pressing issues before us but also argue for what I think it takes to make such a conversation possible. To quote from the epilogue:

“If we’re to have a prayer of truly recognizing and overcoming our difficulties, we simply must do two things: People of integrity and character must come together, and they must engage in an honest discussion of the issues. These two requirements are inextricably interdependent. There has to be sufficient integrity of character among those talking (i.e. the participants must necessarily have faced and overcome their fears, biases, insecurities, and misperceptions) for the truth of important matters to emerge, and to be appropriately accepted, respected, and revered when it does.”

Confronting our problems and challenging each other in a frank yet benign and clean-spirited way has never been easy. But the times appear to be compelling us to do so with a level of sincerity most of us are not used to displaying. I for one am simply sick and tired of hearing some of the rhetoric being bandied about: political adversaries being compared to Hitler, loyalty and patriotism being called into question, arguments framed and messages ‘spun’ in such a manner as to obfuscate the more important truths. There’s plenty of discourse out there, but the lack of civility within it is appalling — and ultimately self-defeating.

In my book I also state that if we don’t get honest with ourselves about ourselves and with one another about one another pretty soon, some intensely negative consequences will surely come to pass. I believe this wholeheartedly.

Still, I remain hopeful. This is the information age, after all, and the opportunities and potential venues for us to conduct all sorts of dialogue have never been greater. But the issues and challenges we face are substantial, and unless we conduct our discourse in a civil and mutually respectful manner, our discussions are not likely to lead to the resolve of any of our major concerns. To help ensure that civil discourse has not simply met its demise, we all need to take some action to foster it. Hopefully, in this post I have done a small part.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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