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What Is Civil Discourse?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are two meanings of civil discourse. The first is a discussion conducted in a civil manner, and the second is a discourse on civil matters. An ultimate civil discourse might be a discussion concerning every day, practical matters conducted with civility. Any discourse is a search for the truth conducted with good critical thinking and communication skills. It is similar to dialectics, but is different to rhetoric and debates, which are acts of persuasion.

Civil discourse, as outlined by Kenneth J. Gergen, is similar to discourse ethics. It is, however, more simplistic. Those taking part in Gergen's discourse are expected to keep to his rules of etiquette. These rules include being objective, peaceful, non-judgmental, and willing to compromise.

A natural by-product of such etiquette is self-censorship, where participants try to filter out what they feel is inappropriate. This marks a fundamental difference between discourse ethics and Gergen's ideas. In discourse ethics, a participant feels free to express any opinion he or she wishes with the knowledge that the other participants will allow him or her to do so. In Gergen's version, statements that may offend others are stopped before being aired.

The social value of civility is high concerning the public domain. Discussions conducted in the right manner set a good example for the audience. There is also an argument that bickering politicians or pundits encourage others to act in a similar way. Civility also allows people who do not like combative discussions to take part without fear of insult. It challenges the notion that all public discourse has to be vitriolic and partisan.

There is some doubt over whether truly civil discourse is possible; while a noble aim, there are limits to what civility can achieve in discussion. First, the discussion might not end with a clear result and might, therefore, confuse the audience. It is disadvantageous for participants in political debates, because it does not rally key supporters and it does not stir the strong emotions that pull voters to the ballot box.

John Locke set out the difference between civil discourse and philosophical discourse in 1690. He believed that civil discourse concerned matters of the real, and therefore practical, world. Philosophical discourse, on the other hand, was concerned with more intellectual matters such as concepts, ideas, and ethics. Civil matters that concerned Lock's real world discourse included commerce, public affairs, and living conditions — basically any normal conversation. His concentration on the real world that affects all humans also made him a precursor to Karl Marx; the Marxist dialectic is a means of finding truth through the exploration of economic forces.

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