Posted by: nmontague | June 10, 2010

The need for civil discourse

I had written another post entry last night when I couldn’t sleep. I think it was a well written entry, but I don’t feel it’s the right time to post it. So I’ve decided to move onto another virtue I think is important.

As an American, I think one of the greatest things in life is the First Amendment. The freedom to think, to speak, to exchange ideas. The Freedom to believe in God and associate with others. We have the privelege to worship and serve God as our conscious dictates. We have the privelege to grow and learn and become better people because of our interactions with the Divine and with our fellow man. We need this freedom to become fuller richer people.

I enjoy good intellectual discussion and debate. I like sharing ideas, trying ideas out, and learning from the experiences of others. But I’ve been disturbed with some of the trends I see, especially from people I know to be intelligent, who end up becoming so uncivil it destroys communication. We have the freedom to do these things, but we exercise our freedom in a way that stunts our growth and the growth of others because we let emotion get in the way. We get angry and attack people and blame others if we think their ideas are wrong or harmful instead of reaching out and trying to persuade others why our viewpoints or correct, or even more asking ourselves if our viewpoints are actually correct.

We don’t have to agree with everything anyone has to say. That doesn’t mean we need to think they are stupid for thinking differently. That doesn’t mean we need to be angry with them. The virtue of civility is the ability to respect one anothers point of view and even look at things through their shoes. You don’t have to agree with the conclusions they make, but without civility things get ugly.

I’ve participated on various political and religious messageboards. I do so because I like discussing these things with people. I like being exposed to new ideas and weighing them and taking them and making my life better. And I like sharing my own ideas with others see what they think, if I can help them. Or if my ideas are completely wrong, or if they have weaknesses, I like being able to get feedback reevaluate and learn.

But more and more lately, I see a more divisive tone. It’s this group against that group, against that group etc. People can’t talk about anything without descending into insults and completely condescending to others. How does this produce anything? How does this help? Not only that, I fear if we keep feeding this uncivil behavior, we will see ourselves destroyed. How long is it before people start losing their anger on more than just a message board? How long will we last before people are completely angry and start getting violent.

I can understand being angry. But if we don’t develop the ability to be civil even when we are angry, there will be blood on our hands. If we as a society don’t change things soon, we will see the breakdown of civilization. Because civility is the fundamental requirement of civilization.

What can we do though? We start with our own lives. Are there times we get angry and act uncivil toward someone? Stop. Being angry is alright, just don’t let it rule you. Don’t let it your anger control how you relate to others and put them down. Use your energy, your words, your discussions, your actions to build people up.

I mentioned Ben Franklin’s virtues in an early entry. I think there are actually several of them that apply here:

SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”

SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”

TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates

I think if we work on these four attrbutes, we will gain in civility. Why are you speaking? Are your words hurting others or are they lifting others up? If they are hurting, stop. If they are lifting, speak more. Are you speaking humility or are you condescending to others? Are you thinking your better or they are just stupid because they think differently or don’t see your brilliance? Do you get angry at something that is an accident or unavoidable? Stop. Learn to accept it. And instead do things to fix the problem and not just yell, degrade, blame, while doing nothing to change anything. We need to take an honest look at our lives. And if we aren’t being civil, it’s alright. Acknowledge it. That’s the first step to change it. Don’t depress yourself. Don’t get woe as me. But accept it and actively fix it.

Civility is something we desperately need. It’s something all of us need to work on from time to time.


1) Honestly assess where in your life you are with regards to civility. What can you do to be more civil in your daily life?

2) Is there anyone who you’ve treated badly in the last few days. Apologize to them. Make a commitment to focus on edifying them rather than tearing them down.

3) When you want to say something badly to someone, hold your tongue. Don’t say anything. Ask yourself if you are saying it out of anger or out of a geniune desire to help them. Don’t gossip behind their back.

I am sure there are lots of other challenges we can do. We can do it one day at a time. You can do all of these or just one, or come up with your own. Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to add alittle more civilization to the world by being civil in your discourse and your conduct. Because if we don’t start heading toward civility on an individual level, our children and grandchildren may not have the civilization we’ve been blessed with in their own lives. Do we want life to be better or worse for them? I’m willing to bet we can answer those questions easily. But we need to follow through after we answer them. We need to commit to those choices and not just have casual interaction with them.

I am going to create challenges with the entries. I want this to be more than just me venting. I want to help produce ideas for the next steps toward these virtues. I would invite anyone who has any comments or ideas of their own and wants to help to share them so we can all grow from each other.


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