I have a great deal of time for ensuring the civil discourse is both courteous and beneficial. The whole point of engaging in civil discourse, by which I mean conversations in the public domain about matters of public interest, is to foster mutual understanding, the sharing of ideas, and, ultimately, seeking the betterment of civil society. Such a high minded ideal is, of course, not shared by everyone, but that does not deter me, nor should it deter others, from doing what we can to encourage and promote good civil discourse, and, and the flip side, to call out pour examples of the same when they can be clearly identified.
And so to the primary thrust of this particular column.
One of things that I find increasingly destructive of good civil discourse is the use of categories to dismiss other participants without the need to engage with the ideas or positions that are attempting to put forward. This phenomenon, which for lack of a better description, I like to call ‘categorisation error’, essentially amounts to an ad hominem argument, that is, focussing on the speaker, writer or other communicator, rather than on the substance of what is being put forward in what the individual is saying, writing, or otherwise seeking to communicate.
By way of example, consider the way the word ‘woke’ is often deployed to describe a particular group of people who are, as the word is usually defined, “alert to injustice in society, especially racism”. It is a word that has found its way into common usage in recent time especially in light of particular issues. It is also a word that is used by some interlocutors, those who could be described as having more conservative social and political views, to refer to those considered to be political opponents.
And it is used, often, as a means of dismissing those so described, i.e. those people are ‘woke’, and therefore we do not have to respond to anything they have to say or engage in further conversation with them.
To be clear, this is not a phenomenon that is restricted to only one part of the broader civil spectrum. It is not something we see only on the left of the political spectrum nor only on the right of the same spectrum. Consider, for example, the use of the word, ‘reactionary’ – often used by those on the left of the political spectrum about those on the right of that same spectrum. It is, like the descriptor ‘woke’, used to dismiss a certain group of people as unworthy of being engaged with for the very reason that they are of a group known labelled as ‘reactionary’.
The phenomenon is more universal than that, however, symptomatic, I believe, of a larger problem. And that problem as about the fear, or lack of good intent if I am being generous, to engage with ideas which may be completely foreign to one’s own worldview, lest that same worldview might be shaken and brought down. In much of what could broadly be described as civil discourse in our contemporary society, there is a desire to maintain one’s own worldview at all costs. It is a phenomenon that has grown in more recent times, particularly in the partisan political arena, where there seems to be a penchant for ‘oppositionalism’, i.e. opposition for the sake of opposition, rather than a preparedness to engage in dialogue and discourse that seeks to serve the common good of the state and its citizens. It is symptomatic of a ‘win at all costs’ mentality that serves the cult of the individual more than the human relationships that are at the foundation of civil society.
I suspect that, at least in partisan political circles, that the phenomenon has as much to do with the developing ‘cult of personality’ that is at the heart of many partisan political campaigns in contemporary societies. The lionisation of the individual politician, or nascent demagogue, so that every utterance that comes from their lips is deemed to be unchallengeable or incontrovertibly true, and opponents are dismissed by the use of labels such as woke or reactionary, or others depending on the person who wishes to apply them to their opponents. The use of labels – woke, reactionary, liberal, conservative, progressive, or any other one – has only one purpose, and that is to provide a basis for refusing to engage in civil discourse, to engage with ideas that might not be immediately attractive, and to fortify one’s own position lest it is challenged and brought crumbling down.
And who suffers as a result of the advent of this phenomenon? We all do. Ideas go unexplored because they have been dismissed through the application of a label. Political opponents are demonised because they are likewise labelled. And all the while the society we are supposed to be building together becomes more fractured, more tribal, more divided. Instead of moving forward together for the common good, we expend energy building barriers between each other that thwart the seeking of that very thing.
But it is not yet too late to rescue civil discourse. It is not yet too late to change the way we engage with other people – even those we might fundamentally disagree with. All it takes is a little bit of effort on everyone’s part.
All it takes is some basic human respect and cordiality, and a preparedness to recognise that civil discourse should be exactly that.