The Course of Reason

Civil Discourse

December 27, 2012

Debates are a thing this community has always held a knack for. We tend to pride ourselves on the ability of our debaters to go up against, for example, someone spewing out creationist nonsense. To take the arguments of the other side, and reduce them to a joke. From time to time, the debate can shift from civil to more hostile tones. This is inherent in the nature of a debate. The purpose of which is to convince the audience that you are right, no matter how you go about doing it. Debates are also about entertainment. It likely says a few negative things about our society, but we enjoy when a debate has an air of hostile combat about it. One thing we shouldn't lose sight of in the excitement of a good debate, however, is the need for civil discourse.

I'm not advocating for debates to become more civil. Given what I just said regarding the nature of the debates, and how they can foster a more hostile situation, I'm not going to focus on them. Rather, I want to focus on civil discourse more generally when it comes to discussions that members of the community engage in. Part of this discussion is likely to tie into the "tone" debate that has been occurring within atheist circles since the rise of the New Atheism, and continues with the emergence of Atheism+, though I don't plan on discussing either of those specifically.

No one should be expected to maintain a perfectly civil manner throughout conversations with people they find disagreeable. It is inevitable that in the course of stating your opinions, and engaging with others who do the same, that you will come across someone with an opinion so disagreeable, so out there, just plain wrong that your patience will begin to break down. Other times, you will find yourself arguing with the same person over the exact same issue. Again, and again, and again until you can no longer stand to have the conversation that you know will go absolutely nowhere. Finally, there are the opinions that contribute to hatred and intolerance. Ideas of intolerance that should not be tolerated, and I don't see anything wrong in not showing respect to such views. However, the general rule should be one of civility.

To use an example of civility relevant to our community, I'll refer to a couple of discussions that recently took place on AAFW's Facebook page. Both of these discussions could, I think, act as examples of how to be civil. They weren't perfect in their civility, of course. In the first discussion, the word "bullshit" was tossed around a few times. Godwin's law was also fulfilled though that didn't occur until very late in the discussion at which point the conversation looked like it was starting to go in circles. The second discussion focused on evolution. Questions were posed to the group by a creationist. Like the first conversation, it wasn't perfect. Yet, the members of the group did what they could to answer the questions that were put forward. They didn't resort to dismissing the individual on the spot.

The point of civil discourse is to advance your position without causing the other side to doubt their own self-worth. It's not always easy to do this. Especially in the case of, as mentioned, people who hold views that foster hate and intolerance. I find it hard to swallow the idea that such opinions deserve any measure of respect though those ideas are the exception to the rule: Try not to insult other people. An essay-length post explaining why a person's position against evolution is wrong (that really happened, multiple times) is always better than simply dismissing the person right away. They may not like the long-response, and there's nothing that can be done about that, but in the end, an attitude of a civility will go a lot further in bringing people into the community than hostility ever will.


About the Author: Chris Burke

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Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.




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