10/31/2012 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012


With less than a week to go until the election (and just two podcasts left in the Critical Voter series), I'm finding myself rushing to the finish line to cover all the topics I was hoping to get to this election cycle. So today, let's talk about civility in our current political discourse.

The two times we tend to get perplexed about the supposed lack of civility in our political debates include (1) elections; and (2) whenever an act of political violence breaks out. Yet whenever remedies for this alleged uncivil dialog are recommended, demanded or implemented, they tend to either be rejected or fail to achieve results (such results defined as a calmer political climate).

The reason why calls for civility are frequently dismissed is that they are often seen as insincere. For example, whenever an act of political violence occurs that can be traced to one of the two political persuasions that dominate U.S. politics (Left and Right) there is an immediate insistence by partisans of the opposite persuasion to widen the circle of guilt as much as possible, insisting that the gunman or bomber who murdered in the name of ideology represents the true face of their political opponents. And these accusations are normally accompanied by demands that we "return to civility" to prevent this type of murderous violence occurring again.

Naturally, the accused will reject an equation that says their political views inevitably lead to murder. And debates over "civility" quickly degenerate to whether partisans are trying to place certain reasonable political views outside the realm of legitimate debate.

The reason such charges and counter charges tend to lead to nastier rather than nicer political conversations is the same as why pledges of civility (like the one taken by the two Senatorial candidates in my home state of Massachusetts) go nowhere: a misunderstanding of what we mean by the term "civility" in the context of argumentation.

For most people, civility translates to quieter, measured and (one hopes) thoughtful discussion (vs. the raised voices and uncomfortable feelings we associated with what we've come to think of as uncivil behavior). But as this well-argued piece by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse points out, imposing or self-imposing a conciliatory stance at the outset of an argument is not a step in the argumentation process, but a way of avoiding arguments altogether.

Even compromise (so valued in an era when "reaching-across-the-aisle" is considered the ultimate political virtue) makes no sense in argumentation unless the argument has reached an impasse, which means compromise is the only alternative to doing nothing when faced with two irreconcilable positions.

So if a calm voice and conciliatory language are not forms of civil argumentation (and might be a substitute for argumentation in general), what would genuine civil debate look and sound like?

The Aikin and Tilisse piece provides an answer to that question which fits very nicely into discussions regarding the Principle of Charity. Specifically, a civil argument would be a sincere argument, one in which opponents both present and defend their positions with all the intellectual strength they can, while also engaging their opponent's arguments at their strongest.

What this means is that someone pouncing on their opponent's weakest points or mischaracterizing their positions in order to attack a straw man are engaging in uncivil debate, even if they do so in the most polite and measured tones imaginable.

Similarly, someone who truly understands their opponent's positions and is willing to focus their attacks primarily on that opponent's strongest arguments (which are characterized accurately before attacking them) is engaged in civil dialog (even if voices get raised during the debate).

So looking back over the campaign so far, the primary cause of incivility in public discussion is the unwillingness of members of either political persuasion to treat their opponents as genuine interlocutors with serious ideas. This is why so much of the campaign has been about verbal stumbles (such as Mitt Romney's 47% or Barak Obama's "the private sector is doing fine" statement snippets) blown up and presented as the key to understanding one side or the other's "true beliefs" (while never articulating what those beliefs consist of, except perhaps in the form of a self serving parody).

In a civil debate, we would be aggressively (and honestly) arguing the key points of Progressive ideology (and whatever else fuels the beliefs of the Democratic Party) as well as the Conservative ideologies that underlie Republican beliefs, not engaging in fantasies about this candidate's ring or working ourselves into a froth over that candidate's high school behavior (which we pretend provides windows into the candidates' true souls).

Such debate could get heated (although such heat should never be used to stop an argument from continuing -- by resorting to ad homonym attacks, for example). In fact, such non-destructive heat might allow some steam to be released (for European travelers, think of arguments you might have seen break out in a French coffee shop that end with opponents sincerely hugging and kissing after a debate well fought by both sides), as long as nothing is done to intentionally stop the discussion in its tracks through tactics that violate the Principle of Charity.

So before the next round of inevitable breast beating breaks out over uncivil behavior (followed by calls to "heal the wounds" by doing whatever the winner says), perhaps all of us (which includes we the people) need to stop and think about when we last had a solid, meaningful argument (vs. a bitch session among like-minded friends or shouting match with a "non-believer" over trivia). And if you don't have an answer that that question, you'd better relearn the art of argumentation fast before this fundamental skill of civil democracy atrophies.