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Experts: Civil discourse possible, even in polarized political times

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(Editor’s note: The following commentary was written by the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Find more resources related to the 2020 vote at the University's dedicated elections website.)

At UL Lafayette, demonstrating empathy and esteem for others, believing in the inherent worth of diverse cultures and perspectives, and transcending established ideas together are part of who we are.  Even if it seems that some in our society have forgotten the arts of compromise, civil discourse, and respectful and productive debate, at UL Lafayette we haven’t. We were made for this moment.

With the surge of public mudslinging surrounding the election, it’s easy to assume that heated confrontation and rancor are a modern ill brought about by the echo chambers of social media. 

But, in fact, there was no “golden age” of peaceful and constructive political discussion in American history.  Democracy has always been messy and full of impassioned controversy. 

The Constitution itself resulted from lengthy and often bitter debate.  During the presidential campaign of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s supporters accused the incumbent John Adams of being “a hideously hermaphroditical character.” Adams’s supporters claimed in response that: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced [during a Jefferson presidency] . . . the soil will be soaked with blood.” 

Before the Civil War, screaming matches were common and even beatings occurred on the floor of the U.S. Congress.  And we’ve fought over the results of past presidential elections, including that of 1876, which took four months to resolve. 

So, bitter political conflict that strains the fabric of the nation is not new, and the passionate expression of differing views of the good society is in fact fundamental to our democracy.

But within our often-polarized contemporary society, is it possible for us to productively discuss the election, our political views, and our ideals across partisan lines?  Absolutely! 

Universities have long taught, practiced, and valued civil discourse, and it can happen in 2020 just as it has in the past. UL Lafayette’s values of equity, integrity, intellectual curiosity, creativity, tradition, transparency, respect, collaboration, pluralism, and sustainability will help us to succeed in this challenge as they have in so many others. 

Civil discourse has been defined as “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree.” In civil discourse that leads to productive exchanges, everyone
thoughtfully listens to what others say;

  • focuses on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them;
  • follows the structure of argument:  Position, Reasoning and Evidence.  Counterarguments must not question the speaker’s character, identity, experience or sincerity, but should offer an opposing argument of the same structure.
  • feels they can ask questions without fear of ridicule, and can make and learn from their mistakes;
  • expects to have their own biases and preferences, but not to impose them on others;
  • seeks the sources of disagreements and points of common purpose;
  • disagrees with others’ points of view respectfully and without blame or recrimination;
  • acknowledges that they will need to compromise on some things and is willing to do so; and
  • must never inflict harm on others through words or actions.

By following the principles of civic discourse, respecting each other and reflecting on what we have in common, we can use our strengths to transcend the divisions of the moment and build a path forward together.