By Sally Pyne
In several groups I frequent there has been discussion of the lack of civil discourse in our world today. What is that, you ask? Psychologist, Kenneth J. Gergen (brother to David, prominent political analyst) defines it as “the language of dispassionate objectivity,” and suggests that it requires respect of the other participants. It neither diminishes the other’s moral worth, nor questions their good judgement; it avoids hostility, direct antagonism or excessive persuasion; it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participant’s experiences. I like that description—but how do we get there? I’d like to make some suggestions.
I think our best bet is to continue to train our youth about civil discourse. Illinois Common Core has standards for this and calls it “collaborative conversations.” It is not content specific by any means. It provides student the skills and practice to use tools for respectfully disagreeing and implementing good communication practices. Their parents should be included in this training as well. Then these tools could be supported at home. Is it too much to hope that domestic disputes, senseless shootings and bullying might diminish if we all practiced civil discourse?
Remember the Wild West gun duels? Standing back-to-back…. pace forward…turn at the same time and shoot! One dies and the other is most likely wounded. Not a very constructive way to solve problems, was it? Haven’t we come farther than that? How can we all learn to turn our opinions into reasoned arguments and challenge opposing viewpoints, not with fists and fury, but step-by-step through skills of thought. Won’t we move closer to some solutions and new ideas for solving problems through that kind of exercise?
I read of a curriculum that starts with very young children and teaches them about their words. The acronym is “THINK.” Before you speak, ask yourself if your words are: True? Helpful? Inspiring? Necessary? Or Kind? Middle school kids build upon these “word questions” by constructing arguments using these parts: Assertion, Reasoning and Evidence. When I taught Sociology in high school and college classrooms we established “rules” for respectful and effective communication that included many of these ideas. My daughter who teaches 5th grade accomplishes this through practice in a fun exercise of “The Great Candy Bar Debate,” which I had the pleasure of witnessing last year. Groups choose their favorite candy bar and and build arguments to convince the others why their candy is the best. Everyone was rewarded with their favorite treat upon finishing. Perhaps we need incentives to be civil? Finally, in high school, which could be the end of education for many, we should teach Robert’s Rules of Order. Through understanding and practice students will learn how to appropriately voice their opinions.
In conclusion, I offer these suggestions: Be mindful of your own behavior—are you creating a welcoming environment for differing opinions? Wait your turn to talk. Don’t interrupt, even if you are excited to talk. No side conversations—how rude, really. Listen for content, especially when you disagree—what are they trying to say, even if they are not able to say it very well. Find some common ground & point it out. Follow the discussion and don’t repeat what has been said already—tie your points to the points of others. Ask questions if you don’t know what they mean. Know and note the difference between facts and opinions—both are valid when expressed appropriately. And finally, don’t embarrass yourself by making demeaning or inappropriate comments, facial expressions or gestures. No eye-rolling or checking out of the conversation.
Let’s all try to be more civil. We can all certainly agree we need more in our present-day world, right? But it starts with ourselves, doesn’t it? I’m willing to try, are you?
Dr. Sally Pyne is a lifelong resident of Normal. She is a retired educator and served both Illinois State University and Lincoln College Normal. Her husband Ed owns the Normalite newspaper as well as seven other weeklies in McLean County.
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