Why Dialogue and Civility Matter

1920px Berkeley Free Speech Week protest 20170924 8864
1920px Berkeley Free Speech Week protest 20170924 8864

In America the people are sovereign. That’s a premise we can all agree on, right? See! Civility isn’t so hard. We agree already! Well, no… It is actually quite hard, as we all know, and it’s getting worse. If civility continues to erode, it might destroy our democracy.

Richard Farkas, professor of political science at DePaul University, gets credit for the following construct:


The thesis is democracy requires compromise, compromise requires dialogue and dialogue requires civility.

Democracy requires compromise

Francis Fukuyama was wrong to argue that the fall of the Soviet Union and the triumph of democracy was the “end of history.” The world is slipping away from democracy after reaching an apogee about a decade ago. Democracy is not guaranteed, even for a country as enlightened as America.

There can be no lasting democracy without compromise because, in a democracy, compromise is the only way to resolve competing interests. How do we educate the young and take care of the old? Do we augment the military or fund health care? Is a bridge in Tennessee more important than a water project in California? Without compromise the gears of our government would jam and fly apart.

Take for example Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision on abortion in 1973. Everyone detests it. If you support a woman’s right to choose, it’s too restrictive. If you’re pro-life, it is tantamount to murder. It’s truly an inflammatory issue for which both sides claim to know the “truth.” But if either side were to “win” the other side will be in open revolt. Roe v. Wade is a compromise, which makes neither side completely happy, but it works.

Compromise requires dialogue

The word argument creates a visceral, stress-induced fight-or-flight reaction, but it shouldn’t. When done with civility, an argument is simply an exchange of views in search of truth. Dialogue—which implies a willingness to listen and to evaluate views with which we disagree—is a euphemism for argument. Only through dialogue can we discover each other’s path to truth and develop empathy and understanding.

Politics is not a science. It’s a laboratory populated by fallible, unpredictable human beings. The path to truth is treacherous, indeed. Political truths are often beyond our ability to know, even with years of trial and error. It’s best to make the journey in partnership (compromise) with others you trust, even if their political views diverge from yours.

Debate helps us discover our own minds as well. Nothing sharpens the intellect as much as writing down your argument. Once on the page, the words taunt you to refine them, to tighten your argument.

I’m Jewish. Jews are taught the value of an “argument for the sake of heaven.” This poetic phrase refers to the style, tone, and demeanor of a debate in which the protagonists are respectful and strive to make the argument a search for truth. It’s our tradition: Abraham argued with God. So did Moses. Dinner conversations are seldom boring.

The Talmud tells that before you get in an argument, you must think of 49 reasons why the other side is right. If you think Bernie Sanders has brilliant ideas, how many good things can you say about Donald Trump? And if you are one of those deplorables who love Trump (like me), how many things can you say Senator Sanders is right about? It’s hard, isn’t it! Did you come up with one? It’s a great exercise for minds that are frozen in political amber.

Civil dialogue

To argue politics and not be a boor you need civility. If you’re really good at it, you can do it with charm. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had the gift. But we all have the capacity to be heard and be persuasive if we learn to be civil. In a world where many people, especially disenfranchised minority groups, can feel invisible, good eye contact, good listening, asking questions will create a strong human connection. They are all part of the toolkit of civil dialogue. They might even think you’re charming.

In dialogue, listen deeply and accurately. Overcome the habit of forming a rebuttal while the other person speaking. Take notice of what your opponent said. This is not as easy as you think. To recount their argument accurately without introducing your own biases is extremely hard. If you have trouble recalling a portion of their argument, ask them for clarification.

And finally, consider their values. What drives them? Knowing what they value is the path to compromise. Compromise is giving them something they want for something you want. If you know what they value, you can fashion a compromise you both can agree on. 

Civil dialogue in practice

I am involved in a number of civil dialogue groups where well-informed people with opposite views come together to learn the tools and practice of dialogue. It has taught me to be observant and receptive. I am more skilled at sensing when things are working and not working.

After many years of such experience my observation is that no one will change their mind in front of you in one conversation. The human psyche is too fragile. But I have seen people make substantive changes in their views gradually over weeks, months and even years. I can think of one case where a person has come all the way over to my position… ten years later! I noticed it happened gradually. I may have been one of the catalysts for change. I’d like to think so.

If you can’t change minds in real time, you can change the window of discourse, more commonly referred to as the Overton Window. The Overton Window is the range of acceptable discourse, and it often changes dramatically over time. For example, attitudes toward gays and lesbians have changed from the biblical “abomination” to illegal “sodomy” to “live-and-let-live” to the recognition of gay marriage to celebration of sexual diversity. Each step along the way set the limits of acceptable conversation.

Be practical and realistic. You will not change minds immediately, but you can expand the limits of the conversation. “Allow” your debate partner to range away from his narrow corner of thought and come toward you. I find the Socratic method useful for questioning his or her premises before attempting to refute conclusions.

Now go out there in civil dialogue! Your nation depends on it.

Robert Wilkes is a writer in Bellevue, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. His eclectic career has included military and civilian aviation, engineering, marketing and marketing communications. He is a frequent contributor to Divided We Fall’s Political Pen Pal discussions.

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more bipartisan debates, op-eds, and interviews here.



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Robert Wilkes
Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall

Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, is the former president/creative director of Wilkes Creative, a national branding and marketing company. Robert flew 100 combat missions in Vietnam as a Navy attack pilot. He spent ten years in engineering and marketing at Boeing, where his writing skills were called upon for technical papers, marketing assignments, and speeches for Boeing executives. As an activist in pro-Israel politics, he lobbied with AIPAC for 15 years where he met many congressmen and senators from both parties. Robert loves history, enjoys the craft of writing, and has a passion for civil debate. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.


Doug Parris April 6, 2020 at 12:39 pm

“Compromise is the only way to resolve competing interests” — to me, this is a horribly flawed concept/statement, and perhaps this is why Congress is such a mess right now. Whatever happened to having the parties with the competing interests sit down to discuss the underlying reasons behind their interests, such that the two parties no longer have competing interests but instead have common interests and shared desires?

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