Some Thoughts on Civil Discourse

In my communities, and it seems in my country, I have watched increasing polarization and the lines of demarcation run sometimes very close to home. When conversations become polarized, it becomes very easy to forget that you are talking to a human being like yourself and instead imagine yourself fighting a righteous battle against an insidious, cunning, super-human villainous horde. As the climate escalates, it becomes more tempting and “justifiable” to let go of emotional containment, reflection, and dialogue with the desire to understand. Parts of us get activated by the conflict, begin to feed it and feed upon it.

A reptilian creature poking its head up from the water. Both the reptile and the water are covered in tiny green leaves.
This guy’s laying low until the argument dies down. Photo by delfi de la Rua.

As an outside observer listening to a lot of arguments (like a therapist who works with couples, or someone who reads the comment sections on the Internet), and a person who has participated in several arguments (and later wondered “Why was I so mad about that?”), I’ve noticed a few things:

  • 20% of conflict is about the thing you are discussing, and 80% is about the emotional experience of the relationship.*
  • If you are accusing another (person/group) of bad behavior, the likelihood is that (you/your group) have participated in behavior that the other (person/group) perceives as similar.**
  • When you are the person accusing the other of behavior you’re engaging in, it is very hard to stop and admit this.
  • At times both parties will make parallel arguments and accusations of each other, but each will focus on a different facet. To offer an oversimplified example: Republicans and Democrats both share Liberty as a value, because America. Democrats point toward socially liberal attitudes as pro-liberty, and accuse Republicans of being anti-liberty for socially conservative policies. Republicans focus on economic and financial liberty and point toward reduced taxes and free markets as pro-liberty, and criticize Democrats as anti-liberty for taxation and regulation.***

We need the art and discipline of civil discourse. It is worth reading and rereading about logical fallacies, as they characterize the worst habits of rhetoric. What I want to focus on is what to do when things get heated. My observation is that escalating emotional reactivity occurs when we feel misunderstood, disrespected, or dismissed.

Think about a time when you felt misunderstood, disrespected, or dismissed. How did you respond? Did you stay in the conversation? Did you stay civil and rational? Did you say something you later regretted?

Think about a conversation where you felt understood, heard, and treated with respect. What was different about the experience?

We’re social beings and we are constantly seeking to be understood. Unfortunately, at least in the United States, the dominant cultural norm is to treat other people’s emotional responses as manipulative, irritating, or a sign of weakness. (Whereas our own emotional responses are always completely correct and justified.) It is when we dismiss, ignore, or patronize other’s feelings that they tend to become more intense and reactive. We do it to ourselves, too. But when it happens in relationship, we can give ourselves the plausible deniability that the other person “lost it for no reason.”

Defensiveness is a great example. We understandably become defensive when we feel attacked, but from the outside it usually looks like we’re attacking, which makes the other participants become defensive. Defensiveness shuts down effective communication and leaves everyone feeling guarded and hurt.

This makes for bad communication. By which I mean, we actually make it harder on ourselves to be understood when we dismiss and belittle others’ feelings. Instead of listening, that person’s mental and emotional energy goes toward managing their reaction. I find this to be true even for those who seem calm and collected. They might have developed some effective skill and flexibility in coping with their reactions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

But you have power to improve communication when things get heated! Even the smallest effort to show consideration and understanding goes a long way to lower the reactivity in a conversation. I’m not making this up. The Gottmans have spent years researching relationships in conflict and they have identified some simple, effective, and difficult practices to improve communications.

I want to offer some phrases to help you think of ways to try this out. When you read these, you might find these too simple, but I think we need simple, easy go-tos when we begin to get emotionally reactive:

  • “I see your point.” Or, better, try to accurately summarize their points. If they correct you, accept their correction.
  • “I can appreciate why you’d feel that way.” Here, you are not agreeing that the other person’s version of reality is completely accurate and yours is wrong. You are acknowledging that their response makes sense based on where they are coming from—their background, their beliefs, their position in the discussion.
  • “What do you mean by this?” In this moment, you have just caught yourself about to launch into a defensive counterattack and asked yourself, “Am I hearing them correctly?”
  • “I am feeling [a feeling] when you say that.” This is about sharing your subjective experience and helping them to understand the impact of their words and actions on you. It’s not about accusing the other person of making you feel that way.
  • “…” This phrase is the long pause you make when you are about to accuse someone of behaving poorly and stop to reflect on whether there has been a time in which they might have felt that you’ve acted this way toward them.

You may be so polarized that you feel reluctant to step back from the hard, accusing stance. There is vulnerability in seeking understanding, particularly if the other parties do not offer it in return. It is also true that making this effort will not always result in increased safety and respect, but I believe that a great way of finding out if someone is willing to act in good faith is to give them the opportunity to do so. If you earnestly try this and find that it is met with disrespect and hostility, then of course figure out what you need to do for self-protection.

I have seen tremendous changes occur when all parties in a dialogue commit to this kind of conversation, particularly when a neutral party supports the process by holding both sides accountable to it. I aspire to the wisdom of Sun Tzu, to whom is attributed the statement: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” This quote speaks to me of conflicts avoided, relationships not destroyed, friendships sustained, all because of a willingness to address and resolve conflict before it escalates into war.


*Source: I made this percentage up.

**I have mixed feelings about the way I’ve phrased this bullet point as it lacks nuance with regard to conversations between people in different states of privilege and oppression. For example, some people argue that the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers are equivalent because they are nationalist groups based in racial identity. I fully disagree, as the Ku Klux Klan emerged to preserve white supremacy and the Black Panthers emerged to address the harms white supremacy does to Black people. The problem I am trying to speak to is that we get locked into defending ourselves and our groups at all costs, and unwillingness to acknowledge that the other party has ever been hurt or we have ever acted poorly interferes with finding resolution. For lack of certainty about how best to rewrite these statements, I want to emphasize that this is a perceived subjective equivalence.

**What’s interesting to think about with regard to the difference in where each group prizes Liberty is that they are also arguing about the shadow virtue of Restraint. Unfettered Liberty is not conducive to a group identity and somewhat implicitly at odds with any kind of centralized government, so Liberty must be balanced with Restraint (or, more negatively, Control). You could look at the argument as a difference in belief about where Liberty and Restraint should occur. Social conservatives say people should be free to spend their resources as they wish, but should also participate in monogamous sexual marriages and be financially responsible for their families. Social liberals say people should be free to live their lives as they wish, but should also be involved in an equitable distribution of resources so that all may be financially supported. Since Restraint is not a well-loved virtue, however, it is politically more effective to focus on where one is pro-Liberty. I think this is worth thinking about in any polarized argument. What virtues do the arguing parties share overtly and covertly, and where do they disagree about the implementation of these virtues?

To Know My True Name: On Identity and Belonging

do you think
just like that
you can divide
this you as yours
me as mine to
before we were us?
if the rain has to separate
from itself
does it say “pick out your cloud?”
– Tori Amos, “Your Cloud

Identity is not who we are, though our English language around identity suggests it points to something essential. There are many identities to claim, as many as there are ways to complete the statement: “I am a/an …” Today I am a son, brother, husband, therapist, and mentor. I might be deeply invested in these identities, deriving significant meaning from them. Is identity who I am, though? There is a Vedic practice known as “Neti Neti” (or “Not this, Not that”) in which one asks one’s self, “Who am I?”, waits for the answer, and then rejects the answer. For example, “Who am I? I am a man… No, I am not a man, that is a gender role assigned to me. Who is the I that is gendered male?” This practice continues until arriving at the answer that feels correct, which for me corresponds with a sense of knowing, a sense of Yes, this is it. (And the answer that was right ten years ago is not the answer that is right today.)This and similar practices lead us toward the Self, greater and deeper than we can fathom, a creative center of each person’s existence that expresses itself in the world. Identities, in this way, are names for various expressions of this Self. Some identities are names for things the Self has experienced—like “survivor.” Others are names for systems of belief that resonate with the self—like “Stoic,” “socialist,” or “Christian.” Identity is how we put our understandings of Self into language, making it possible to analyze, explore, and understand ourselves and communicate with others. 

Identity is also relational. Those words “son,” “mentor,” infer relationships that “I” have with others—one is not a son without claiming someone or something as a parent. To identify as a “Stoic” is to put one’s self in community with others who ascribe to Stoicism, or have a stoic personality. Here we reach the more complex and political dimensions of identity. To claim an identity is to claim membership in a community of those who share the identity. A lone person who has thoughts and feelings unlike anyone else around them must struggle with feelings of alienation, confusion, shame, or fear that something is deeply wrong with them. The choice seems to be either accepting this alienation or cutting off the parts of them that don’t fit the majority. If those thoughts and feelings have a name an identity, suddenly that person has an opportunity to experience dignity and pride as they are. Thus, the “alphabet soup” of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, asexual, questioning, intersex, and increasingly more identities that are sexually, romantically, or gender non-majority is so vital and continues to expand. Each letter of the LGBTQIA acronym is a declaration of existence and validity for each of those communities, and hope for those who realize their feelings match one of those identities.

Here, in the facet of relationship, is also an opportunity for deep wounding. If I say I am this thing and everyone around me denies it, undermines it, rejects it, or simply ignores it, then that part of me suffers and collapses. Perhaps I can maintain its health through personal work and sheer willpower, but that drains the energy I might spend on other things. I may become defensive, hostile, fearful, anxious, or overwhelmed when my identity is under attack. Though I am cisgender—I was assigned male at birth and continue to identify as male—there have been times when others have explicitly or implicitly questioned whether I am “a man” because I did not behave or look like what they thought “a man” should. This fostered injuries to my identity—a defensiveness and anxiety that arises when I hear a particular phrase, a particular tone, or someone insults me in a way that resembles earlier insults. Intellectually I may understand “being a man” as a complex, shifting cultural and historical set of norms—but I may find myself manipulated into doing something I don’t want to do, simply because someone implied I’m “not a man” if I don’t do it. (At the same time, there are ways my maleness is not questioned in the ways a transgender man’s might be—most people refer to me by male pronouns without my asking; I can use the men’s bathroom without fear; and peers and authorities accept my maleness without any effort on my part.)

Photo by Thomas Lefebvre

As social creatures there is, I believe, an instinctive part of us that needs belonging. We know that babies thrive when they experience touch and warmth from their caregivers. We know that solitary confinement fosters mental illness in prisoners. Threats of exile and abandonment are experienced by parts of us as threats to well-being and survival. I believe this belonging-needing part of us suffers a kind of trauma when it experiences bullying, exile, abandonment, or any experience of being made to feel it is unwelcome. This is one reason why real harm is done to trans and gender nonconforming folk when others refuse to use their names and pronouns.

As with many psychic wounds, when we get our first taste of exile or abandonment, we develop strategies to avoid ever having to experience this pain again. In some ways those strategies succeed at reducing the pain of exile or abandonment, but they may well become toxic to our selves and relationships. The strategies become problematic to our selves and communities when we:

  • Become deeply invested in identity, trying to be “the best [x] I can” so no one can judge or exclude us. This may get us some mileage, but the trauma is magnified when we lose that identity. Someone who has spent years being “a good son” suddenly becomes utterly lost when their parents die. This is also incredibly challenging in a society in which we may hold multiple identities with widely varying norms and expectations.
  • Minimize the need for community and connection altogether, disavowing any identity that requires others’ validation. A less intense version of this might look like cultivating a kind of critical distance, so one is a member of the community but thinks of themself as on the edges, or outside, or more of an observer.
  • Develop rigid expectations of what someone in “[x]” community should look like or act like; what values they should hold; what politics they should espouse; all of which centralizes one’s own values, attitudes, and behaviors. Doing so, we begin to limit our own growth and development.
  • Express defensive outrage or excessive victimization at signs of criticism or accountability from others within the community.
  • Police community boundaries—enacting rigid identity norms by marginalizing anyone who doesn’t fit through social control strategies such as gossiping, bullying, excluding from social events or positions of influence, or straight up denouncing the person as “not a true [x]”. Thus we become hostile to the natural and productive diversity within our communities.

Being a member of communities that are composed of socially marginalized people, I observe the above dynamics periodically. I think these come from the trauma many of us experienced growing up in communities where we felt alien or rejected. Once we find a place where we feel accepted, welcome, and seen, that taste of joy intensifies the resolve to never lose it again. (Of course, others feel unwelcome and rejected even in the communities that “should” accept them.) Unhealed, these underlying identity injuries fester, directing our actions more than we might acknowledge without reflection. Much is made of “body fascism” in gay male communities, and I suspect much of that is fed by the shame of childhood alienation, causing some men to grow up and push themselves to prove their worthiness through superlative physiques, careers, fashion, and then projecting their own insecurities onto the less-developed bodies of their peers, who experience that as reinforcing pressure to hold themselves to those standards as well. Then it begins to look like a cultural norm.

It’s important to note that it is normal and necessary for communities to maintain boundaries and shape definitions for identities. Think of boundaries being as natural and necessary as the shell of an egg, or the edges of a living cell. To foster life, there needs to be some limit that holds in the living organism and keeps out harmful toxins in the environment. That boundary needs to be firm, but porous enough to bring in nourishment and push out what is harmful. All communities develop mechanisms by which this occurs. When these structures are not developed consciously and purposely in a way that allows for flexibility and diversity, then they tend to be enacted in the rigid ways noted above by people who feel most urgently the need to do it, without an accountability structure in place. The loudest voices tend to be the ones of rigidity and exclusion, and the people who recognize and value inclusion and pluralism have to push hard to be heard. Communities with structure have the opportunity to make this polarity a conscious part of their community agreements, recognizing the need for pluralism and boundaries.

On a personal level, I think it is beneficial to continue developing ourselves as whole people. If one identity is taking up much of our time and attention, then it’s worthwhile to engage in other interests, connect with trusted family, or engage with friends outside of that community. This helps me to get perspective on what’s going on in my community, take it less personally, and re-engage with more of an open heart—partially because I remember that I am more than just this identity. The practice of “Neti Neti” or similar meditations of shedding layers of identity also helps to reconnect with the core Self. When I can validate my identity and also remember it isn’t “me,” I feel less vulnerable when someone attacks it. Becoming aware of what the identity means to me—what I think defines the identity based on my lived experience—I have a stronger base of authority to support me in dialogue or confrontation.

What about on a community level? I am curious for more conversation about this, and I think it’s needed. One thought I have is to become sensitive to signs of trauma so that I can respond with compassion when I or someone else acts in the ways listed above. These days I am more interested in communities organized around shared values or a shared mission rather than a shared identity. I think that helps us to depersonalize community problems and focus more on developing just and inclusive community systems with effective boundaries.

What do you think? What practices or policies could heal or manage some of these dynamics?