How To Be Civil While Having Impact Today

Not everyone sees it our way. Not everyone thinks in terms of decreasing suffering or increasing well being, though most would agree to those ideals in theory (because they’re practically-objective), and if they do, some don’t think of their positions as contrary to that morality. Indeed, many people see their views as superior and even more beneficial to the world than anyone else’s. In the face of disagreement, especially when dealing with someone whose positions are not well thought out, a common practice has become to dehumanize and demonize each other via insults and dismissal, rather than seek common ground with civil discourse. However, when all the components of this societal phenomenon are broken down, it becomes apparent that civil discourse is the only rational response to even the most hostile opponent with the most disturbing viewpoints.

Dehumanization Cycles and the Culture of Fear

Dehumanisation often goes in both directions, It’s common to want to defend ourselves against attacks with attacks. It’s tempting to think fair is fair, but they aren’t being fair, so why should I bother with civility?! We think, "these people don’t deserve civility!"

This mentality creates a dehumanization cycle that is exasperated online with the formation of echo chambers and the “Culture of Fear”

  • People who disagree dehumanize the other side and therefore don’t care about each other’s welfare. It’s no longer rare for people on one side or another to overtly wish for members of the other political side to suffer or die. This can get extreme as to instill violence erupting because people don’t see each other as human.
  • People on the sidelines who agree with the other side, even in part, are afraid to voice even the smallest dissent for fear of outgrouping, which increases echo chambers to the detriment of society and the participants of the ingroup themselves. They say they agree out of fear, and their possibly-important viewpoint goes unsaid, which makes the perceived size of the prevailing opinion swell, all while the dissenters’ friends also go silent for lack of support, even if they agree on the dissent. Indeed, echo chambers are populated in part with silent dissenters who don’t know each other, feel completely alone, and are afraid to speak out.
  • The two factors above create the culture of fear reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the US, where anyone who strays from the most favored, often most extreme, views is seen as a traitor for the other side. And each time one side says something bad and dehumanizing about the other, the response is a greater degree of dehumanization and vitriol from the opposing side. It is a horrible massive dehumanization cycle that is dividing our local, national and global societies.

And no, it’s not OK when we do it but bad when they do it, even though it feels like it is. There is no doubt about it - landing zingers feel good, especially when your echo tunnel applauds. But that’s not the point. The point is reducing suffering, and feeding this cycle is not helping anyone to that end.

Conflating Extreme Views with Extreme Rhetoric

Activists look at the world with panic in their heart and fire in their eyes. They see the actions of their adversaries as extreme, and they hear the words of their adversaries which are extreme, and the immediate gut reaction is to fight, fight hard, and fight dirty. They respond with dehumanization and rhetoric of their own, and the cycle continues, because in these dire times, they don’t feel there is time for civility. They don’t believe civil discourse is appropriate when facing someone who is so dead set against their rights or how they believe the country should be. The problem is that they are actually helping the other side when they dismiss civility.

The common reaction to lies and rage is outrage and more rage. It’s easy and it feels good to respond to rage with rage. It feels good to shout someone down, get in a few good jabs, and make the bad guys feel bad. The problem is it doesn’t work; it doesn’t make the other side feel bad at all. In fact, responding to rage with rage entrenches your opponent. It makes your opponent see you like even less of a person and allows them to dehumanize you more, increasing the likelihood that they will continue their path dogmatically and reinforcing both of your echo tunnels with an increased hatred for each other.

This is a key flaw of the social extremists - they see extreme politics and rhetoric, so they respond with extreme discourse (dehumanizing, demonizing, dismissing) to counter the rhetoric to which they’ve been subjected. But this is the exact wrong thing to do, because it perpetuates and aggravates the Dehumanization Cycle resulting in less caring about both the people and the issue(s) involved.

It’s important to note that the side which dehumanizes and demonizes expects to be dehumanized and demonized back. They are expecting the pushback they are being given by the other side, and are sometimes actually looking forward to it. Being demonized back underscores just how right they are by highlighting the fact that the other side is unreasonable and will call them names instead of making a good point (in ironic response to demonization in the first place, which is unnoticed by the speaker because this behaviour is at least somewhat innate).

Indeed, while extreme political positions are valid, important, and in some cases absolutely necessary to hold, Social Extremeness, in the form of dehumanization, demonization, and ostracization, is exactly the wrong path to take to change the extremist’s mind.

This is so important as we move into the future with an increasingly divided political landscape because our instincts are telling us to do the exact wrong thing! Social extremists don’t get this very important point: Civil discourse is not yielding a position, it’s wielding a weapon! In fact, the humanization and non-ostracization aspects of Humanism actively work against extreme negative rhetoric far better than its extreme counterpart.

How Humanism Improves Civil Discourse

“Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology, and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause.”
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

If there is one place where the need for social improvement is most evident, it is the area of civil discourse. All over the country and all throughout the Internet, the apparent demise of calm civil discussions and their replacement with hate dominates discussion and discourages those of us who miss such ideals.

And we are right to miss them. Civil discussions lead to growth, mind expansion, and cooperation. Civil discourse strengthens communities because yes, diversity of thought broadens the quality of the community and those who live within it. Instead, we are seeing huge pervasive amounts of demonization, deplatforming, and ostracization of good people with differing perspectives.

But since one of our social facts is that people living in societies live longer, and that the more the society thrives the better for the people living therein, it is a virtue to try and repair this dynamic and re-replace it with good old-fashioned civil discourse, modified for today’s reality and bolstered by our virtues and vices.

In an excellent article for the American Association of Colleges and Universities, by Andrea Leskes, she describes civil discourse as follows:

  • “Discourse that is civil means that those involved undertake a serious exchange of views;
  • focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them;
  • defend their interpretations using the verified information;
    thoughtfully listen to what others say;
  • seek the sources of disagreements and points of common purpose;
  • embody open-mindedness and a willingness change their minds;
  • assume they will need to compromise and are willing to do so;
  • treat the ideas of others with respect;
  • avoid violence (physical, emotional, and verbal).”

How does a Humanist engage in civil discourse? Apply the ethics and mentality of Humanism:

  • Rehumanization - the people with whom you are disagreeing are complex people with complex ideas and reasons, just like you. See them for the complicated people they are, and recognize that they think they are good people doing good things and making good points.
  • Humility - You, dear reader, may be wrong. No matter how right you are, your opponent is equally convinced that you are wrong and they are right. And no matter how much of an expert you are on any given subject, your opponent has a set of life experiences, and therefore a perspective, that you don’t have. No matter who you are or what you know, you have something to learn from your opponent. Embrace every argument as a chance to learn and grow, even if it is to bolster your position by broadening your knowledge of your opposition.
  • Respect - Earned while it is given, respect is a two-way street which must be travelled by both parties. Neither of you is “just stupid” because neither of you knows everything and both of you are complicated humans with different perspectives. So no insults, no personal attacks, and no strawman arguments allowed.
  • Self Improvement - This is the objective, not convincing the other side you’re wrong. Arguments are a mutual quest for growth. Combine the above two points to seek to broaden your knowledge base from the fully complex human who has a very different perspective. Whether or not one of you convinces the other isn’t the point. Both sides can win an argument if both sides learn and grow, even if nobody changes their mind.
  • Avoid Echo Chambers - They hurt you and society by narrowing your views, increasing your likelihood to outgroup, and fostering ostracization and splintering. Echo chambers make you feel good but harm you because your views are limited to those who agree with you. Seek to avoid them, even though it’s harder, by seeking to bring your opponent closer to you, instead of pushing them away.
  • Check your sources. We have all been fooled by fake news items which have permeated our feeds and conversations over the past few years. These fake news items, as well as the real news that is “spun,” are done so by experts to fool the masses, and it’s discouraging but not shameful to be taken in. So everyone in a discussion has the responsibility to check sources carefully and be prepared to submit them to the opponent.
  • Compassion for your fellow human is imperative in dialogue. We must empathize with people even and especially as they get angry with us. People get angry for reasons, and they experience and react to that anger for still other reasons, none of which you are going to know. You should therefore not assume bad intent, stupidity, or maliciousness at the offset, or even after a small discussion. Most people are not bad - just products of their upbringing and brain make-up - just like you. So if they aren’t bad, but just wrong, a humanistic approach would include compassion for them, especially when they are angry as a result of your conversation. Decreasing well-being is bad, so when someone is experiencing negative emotions, compassion is to be valued. Learn from their anger how impassioned they are, because, in all likelihood, they think they are right and you are espousing a wrong or harmful position. See how their anger affects them and their logic and have compassion, for emotions are strong and you may be the next to get angry.
  • Acceptance follows compassion, because they are humans as you are, and they can be wrong and not evil like you can be. But the point of acceptance is not about winning the argument, its about learning from each other and not dehumanizing or demonizing the opponent, who offers you a different perspective, strengthening you by attacking your echo chamber, and challenging your views, and adding life to yours via social contact, and all the other positive things that human can do for you, with you.

Consider the following fictional, and obviously overheated, online conversation between an anti-abortion commenter and a pro-choice advocate who posts a meme on her wall stating “I’m pro Choice and I vote”:
Commenter: “Abortion is murder - they kill babies!” (This first argument does not dehumanize the advocate.)
Advocate: ”Fuck you, it’s my body and my choice!” (This first swear in retaliation to the idea that her rights are being usurped escalates the rhetoric. The “my body my choice” is expected by the commenter.)
Commenter: “Fuck you baby killer! It’s not a choice, it’s a child!” (responds with the same swear and further escalates with dehumanization with “baby killer” )
Advocate: “Your mother should have aborted you!” (dehumanization flies back, and forth, and back again. These two people now see each other as clearly less human than they see themselves. The commenter gets that line all the time and has a response at the ready.)
Commenter: “My mother didn't abort me because she loved me! Aren’t you glad your mother loved you enough to keep you?” (a zinger that attacks the advocate’s motherly instincts, which is easier for the commenter now because the advocate has allowed herself to be dehumanized)
Advocate: “My mother wanted to have me. Your mother was obviously not given that choice. How does it make you feel knowing your mother had no choice?”(The advocate is now trying to hurt the commenter back. He attacked her rights, her autonomy, and her mother. As far as she’s concerned, this guy is scum and deserves it; he thinks the same of her).

So at the end of this exchange, what has happened? The commenter thinks that the advocate is a terrible person who doesn’t care about killing babies and insulted his mother. The advocate thinks the commenter is a harasser and a rights usurper. Neither thinks the other deserves patience or understanding. Nobody has changed their mind, and MOST OF ALL, everything happened as they both expected!

Let’s try a different approach. This time, the same protester is attacking a Humanist who uses understanding and kindness to break down some barriers to communication.
Commenter: “Abortion is murder - they kill babies!” (This first statement takes an extreme position that abortion is murder, but does not dehumanize the patient.)
Advocate: “Hi! Welcome to my wall and thank you so much for caring about babies! I don’t think abortion is murder of course, because I wouldn’t murder anyone just like you wouldn’t! But I get that you are trying to do what you think is the right thing and I respect it even if I fight against you politically.” (NONE of this was expected by the commenter, who has just been simultaneously validated as a nice person and rebuked politically.)
Commenter: “Well, yes I do care, and so should you! They kill babies!” (Returns to rhetoric, but because he has nothing off which to ricochet, he does not escalate.)
Advocate: “Well of course I care! I care just as much as you do (forcing the commenter to humanize her), but the difference is I’m not religious, and you are, right?
Commenter: “yes, I am a Christian and God tells me abortion is murder!” (This is now a religious discussion, the commenter is now deep in unexpected territory, and still, there has been no escalation.)
Advocate: “Well, I’m not a Christian, I’m an atheist and a Humanist, and everything we as a society knows tells us is that this fetus isn’t alive yet (adds citatation for support), so it’s not at all murder as far as the rest of the world thinks. And of course I do have control over my own body like you have control over yours, and this is my decision. However, I want to thank you for trying to do good with what information you have, and I hope you will look and see what the rest of the world believes, and consider if your religious position is the only reasonable path. Have a nice day!”

So after this exchange, the advocate has not dehumanized the commenter. She sees him as a complex person who has been the victim of indoctrination and is not evil, just wrong, and he thinks he’s doing good by being there. The commenter is, on the other hand, disarmed of his rhetoric, forced to humanize the patient more than he wants to, and sees the issue as religious, not just “baby murder”.

The issue is dire, the stakes are high, and each person takes an extreme opposite view of the topic. On the issue of abortion itself, both of these people would become red-faced in anger at their points being attacked, but there were no red faces here, and most importantly, there was a clear winner. The Humanist has calmly and civilly dominated her opponent. He wasn’t expecting what he got, was unprepared to respond, and left the conversation seeing her as a more complete, reasonable person, so he has less of an excuse to dehumanize her and, as a result, is forced to see more of her side of the argument.

The Weapon Of Civil Discourse

Civil discourse is not a code word for “coddling the enemy”. It’s not about taking the high road when they “go low”. It’s not something to be dismissed because there are more important and urgent matters on the table.

Effectively utilizing your best weapon is an all-important strategy.

Civil discourse is a powerful weapon to deploy strategically and consistently. It should be your weapon of choice all the time; it:

  • Disarms your opponent, because often all they have is rhetoric and they don’t know how to respond to civility.
  • Deflects their attempts to dehumanize you, forcing them to deal with you as a person, not just another extremist insulting them and yelling nonsense (even if it is in response to their own extremist attack).
  • Deflates their hate, so much so they might even like you (and see your side of the issue better) when you are done. This is the guaranteed opposite of the extreme approach, which only adds fuel to their fire.
  • Defeats their arguments, for real, by actually getting to the point and using your superior logic, while paving a path for them, personally, to come to your side with some degree of pride.

Civil discourse is to be used in all, especially including the most extreme, circumstances. The more extreme the rhetoric, the more important subject, the more you need to take your (even extreme) position with a Humanistic approach. There is no subject too important to worry about civil discourse because civil discourse is a weapon that is far more useful than dehumanizing and demonizing.


The people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center were not “just evil”. They thought they were doing good. Pretty much everyone does. But Civil Discourse is not about treating bad people like you would want them to treat you, it’s about understanding that dehumanizing and demonizing your enemy is not the road to changing them.

Using civil discussion even in the face of hate can and will often give you a huge leg up on the opposition, and it will never hurt your position. It disarms the opponent and the onlooker, and grants you a gravitas that can never be won with zingers and insults. More importantly, civil discourse helps you win your side with knowledge while increasing your awareness of the opposition. Civil discussion is not something you grant to your opponent - it’s a weapon you wield against them.

Take your politically-extreme position. Use truthful, even blunt or painful words, but attack the ideas while you Humanize your opponent, no matter how disturbing and dangerous their position, and communicate with intent to build bridges, not burn them. If your position is strong, civil discourse is your best weapon. That is why it’s a show of strength to wield it.

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