Civil discourse

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Civil discourse is engagement in discourse (conversation) intended to enhance understanding;[1] it is discourse that "supports, rather than undermines the societal good".[2] Civil discourse has also been defined as "robust, honest, frank and constructive dialogue and deliberation that seeks to advance the public interest" by an assortment of national leaders in 2011 during a conversation at the U.S. Supreme Court.[3] Uncivil discourse is "language characterized as containing direct insults, willful misattribution of motive without due reason, and open contempt".[4]

The definition of civil, in civil discourse, can have two distinct meanings, according to professor of public policy Archon Fung:

The first is a superficial kind of civility—being nice, refraining from insults or ad-hominem kinds of argument. The second is a deeper, more important (and older, for what that's worth) sense of civility that is about behaving in ways that are necessary for cooperative projects such as schools and democratic societies to work well. This deeper sense of civility comes from the Latin civilitas—relating to citizens. Civility in this sense is behavior that is important for good citizenship.[5]

The notion of civility originates in Cicero from the concept of societas civilus or civil society. Rhetoric professor Chris Lundberg says of civil society "there are certain standards of conduct towards others and ... members of the civil society should comport themselves in a way that [seeks] the good of the city."[2] In other words, civility is not about politeness; it is about behaving in such a way that advances the greater good.


Social psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen describes civil discourse as the "language of dispassionate objectivity", and suggests that it requires respect of the other participants, such as the reader. It neither diminishes the other's moral worth, nor questions their good judgment; it avoids hostility, direct antagonism, or excessive persuasion; it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participant's experiences.[6]

According to American University, the following defines what civil discourse is: truthful, productive, audience-based, about listening and talking and it is each individual speaker's responsibility. Also, the following defines what civil discourse is not: mere politeness, an exercise in martyrdom, about telling people who they are, and purely performative.[7]

In Book III of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), philosopher John Locke contrasts between civil and philosophical discourse (or rhetorical discourse) with the former being for the benefit of the reader, and the public good:[8][9][10]

First, By, their civil use, I mean such a communication of thoughts and ideas by words, as may serve for the upholding common conversation and commerce, about the ordinary affairs and conveniences of civil life, in the societies of men, one amongst another. Secondly, By the philosophical use of words, I mean such a use of them as may serve to convey the precise notions of things and to express in general propositions certain and undoubted truths, which the mind may rest upon and be satisfied within its search after true knowledge. These two uses are very distinct; and a great deal less exactness will serve in the one than in the other, as we shall see in what follows.

A modern assessment of civil discourse from Bob Stein, quoted in an article by Maria Bustillos, echoes Locke's statements, and highlights civil discourse's usefulness in the internet age: "'The truth of a discipline, idea or episode in history lies in these interstices,' he said. 'If you want to understand something complicated it's helpful to look at the back and forth of competing voices or views.'"[11]


As individuals, civil discourse enables people to preserve relationships with their friends, families, and neighbors, ensuring that they have robust ties across points of difference. It allows people to work productively with those with whom they disagree on issues where they may agree, not letting bad feeling prevent moving forward on important shared concerns. It also allows people to bring clarity to those areas where they do disagree, better delineating the points of difference and better enabling people to weigh the various points of argument.[12]

Civil discourse embodies the values of civic learning: open-mindedness, compromise, and mutual respect. Participants in civil discourse must learn about all sides of the issue at hand by respectfully listening to alternative interpretations, critically weighing the information's veracity, analyzing what they've heard, and being willing to alter their positions based on a convincing argument and evidence.[13]

Philosopher Miranda Fricker argues that to handle discussions of topics often associated with civil discourse we should frame the discourse as first-order ethical questions focused on socially situated conception. This is meant to cause civil discourse to focus on the social aspects of the situation and those participating in the conversation, by focusing on questions of power structure with first-order ethical questions while also acknowledging the multiple aspects of social situations and their impact.[14]

In the Information Age[edit]

In the age of social media and online information and communications technology, civil discourse has encountered new challenges and, in turn, inspired new technologies to deal with them. Journalist Alexander Heffner of PBS's "The Open Mind" has expressed concerns about "increasing divisiveness in American discourse"[15] and has lectured on "Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age".[16][17] The National Institute for Civil Discourse have cited criticisms that uncivil interactions are common in text-based online communication.[18] In his book Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen argues that the democratization of the internet "is not improving community; it is not developing rich conversations; and it is not building collaboration" but rather has led to the development of "digital narcissism", or the embrace of the self, which is counterproductive to citizenship. By focusing on oneself, one is not listening, reading and ingesting high quality information which are key elements to citizenship. Keen also argues that the anonymity that the internet affords leads to uncivil conversations online.[19]

Stanford researches used artificial intelligence to develop a chatbot moderator to promote civil, civic discourse on its online deliberation platform.[20] These are just a few examples of the ways the pursuit of civil discourse is impacted by new technologies. While technologies are conducive to public discourse, they can also allow for discourse that is uncivil and detrimental.[19]

National Institute for Civil Discourse[edit]

To reach a broader audience, The National Institute for Civil Discourse, a center at the University of Arizona, was created in 2011. The NICD is a non-partisan organization based out of Tucson, Arizona, that believes in the power of civil discourse to transcend party divides.[21] Their key principles include: constructively engaging differences, listening for understanding, empathy, humility, conscience, principled advocacy, and common ground.[22] The founding chairmen are former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, with board members such as Madeleine Albright, Katie Couric, and former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.[23]

Understandings of participation in civil discourse[edit]

Proponents of civil discourse have proposed loosely defined "rules" to be followed. Andrea Leskes, writing in Liberal Education in 2013, gave a list of such rules, such as: listen thoughtfully to what others say; seek to understand the sources of disagreement and common ground; come into the discussion willing to compromise; use verified information to support one's argument; refrain from violence.[3]

Some common guidelines to facilitate civil discourse summarized by the University of Michigan include: identifying a clear purpose, establishing ground rules, providing a common basis for understanding, creating a framework for discussion that maintains focus and flow, including everyone, and summarizing discussion and gathering feedback.[24]

The U.S. federal judiciary has compiled information on creating ground rules for civil discourse, including how to interact respectfully with someone who has broken the rules of civility that were agreed upon.[25] As Judge Robin Rosenberg of the U.S. District Court, West Palm Beach, Florida says, "Civility is a way of communicating with one another, it is the foundation by which we relate to one another, and from that, everything else flows."[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mark Kingwell (1995). A civil tongue: justice, dialogue, and the politics of pluralism. Penn State Press. p. 227. ISBN 0-271-01335-4.
  2. ^ a b Shuster, Kate. Civil Discourse In The Classroom. Learning for Justice. p. 3.
  3. ^ a b Leskes, Andrea (3 October 2013). "A Plea for Civil Discourse". Liberal Education. Association of American Colleges and Universities. 99 (4). Retrieved 2021-06-13.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. ^ Beets, Michael W.; Weaver, R. Glenn; Brazendale, Keith (2020-04-07). "Daring to share requires intentional and collective commitment to civil discourse". International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 17 (1): 46. doi:10.1186/s12966-020-00950-7. ISSN 1479-5868. PMC 7140575. PMID 32264903.
  5. ^ Delaney, Nora (March 15, 2019). "For the Sake of Argument". Retrieved 2021-06-09.
  6. ^ Kenneth J. Gergen (2001). Social construction in context. pp. 71–5. ISBN 0-7619-6545-9.
  7. ^ "What is Civil Discourse". American University. Retrieved 2021-06-14.
  8. ^ John Locke (1690). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. ISBN 0-14-043482-8. Archived from the original on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
  9. ^ Peter Walmsley (1995). "Prince Maurice's Rational Parrot: Civil Discourse in Locke's Essay". Eighteenth-Century Studies. 28 (4): 413–425.
  10. ^ Richard Kennington; Pamela Kraus; Frank Hunt (2004). On modern origins: essays in early modern philosophy. Lexington Books. p. 254. ISBN 0-7391-0814-X.
  11. ^ "Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert". The Awl. Retrieved 2021-06-13.
  12. ^ "Why is Civil Discourse Important?". Charles Koch Institute. 2018-11-15. Retrieved 2021-09-16.
  13. ^ Noland, Brian (2018-03-08). "The importance of civil discourse". Johnson City Press.
  14. ^ Fricker, Miranda (2007-06-01). Epistemic Injustice. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198237907.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-823790-7.
  15. ^ Patterson, Kendall (2019-03-06). "Lecture Examines 'Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age'". Ole Miss News. Retrieved 2021-06-15.
  16. ^ "Journalist Alexander Heffner to discuss 'Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age'". YaleNews. 2018-09-18. Retrieved 2021-06-15.
  17. ^ Wyoming Politics | Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age (2018) | Season 2018, retrieved 2021-06-15
  18. ^ "Improving Civil Discourse – Center for Media Engagement – Center for Media Engagement". Retrieved 2021-06-15.
  19. ^ a b Junco, Reynol; Chickering, Arthur W. (September 2010). "Civil Discourse in the Age of Social Media". About Campus: Enriching the Student Learning Experience. 15 (4): 12–18. doi:10.1002/abc.20030. ISSN 1086-4822.
  20. ^ "A Moderator ChatBot for Civic Discourse". Stanford HAI. Retrieved 2021-06-15.
  21. ^ "About". National Institute For Civil Discourse. Retrieved 2021-06-13.
  22. ^ "Engaging Differences Key Principles and Best Practices". National Institute For Civil Discourse. Retrieved 2021-06-13.
  23. ^ "NICD Board". National Institute For Civil Discourse. Retrieved 2021-06-13.
  24. ^ "Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics | CRLT". Retrieved 2021-06-14.
  25. ^ "Setting Ground Rules – Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions | United States Courts". Retrieved 2021-09-17.
  26. ^ "Civility: In the Law and in Life", YouTube, archived from the original on 2021-12-21, retrieved 2021-06-15

Further reading[edit]

  • Benjamin R. Barber (1999). "The discourse of civility". In Stephen L. Elkin; Karol Edward Sołtan (eds.). Citizen competence and democratic institutions. Penn State Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-271-01816-4.
  • Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse (1969). A critique of pure tolerance. Beacon Press.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Miranda Fricker (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford Scholarship Online. ISBN 9780198237907.
  • John Milton (1644). Areopagitica. p. [1].

External links[edit]