Civil Discourse

Civil Discourse by Eleanor Sigel - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

Growing up in a politically monolithic suburb of Chicago, I have rarely experienced meaningful political discourse. There is little up for debate in a village where 85 percent of the residents voted Democrat in the 2016 election.1 Attempts by my Civics teacher to provoke a political discussion are met with rapid consensus. Even during rare instances of political disagreement, the reserved nature of Midwestern culture hampered these opportunities for dialogue. This environment prevented me from ever facing dissenting viewpoints. Further, my politically homogeneous surroundings left me with the false sense that the rest of the world harbored similar worldviews to me. I only realized my mistake the summer before my junior year, when I attended a French language camp outside of Nice. This program drew students from across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, though rarely from North America. For the first time in my life, being an American marked me as an outsider. Not only did I come from a different nation and speak a different first language, my political views distinguished me markedly from my peers, who hailed from all extremes of the political spectrum.

During these three weeks, I stretched my limited French abilities and entered a crash course in political discourse. Russian anarchists debated with conservative Spanish Catholics who debated with Irish nationalists who debated with me. Oftentimes, my peers’ views flummoxed my middle-of-the-road, Midwestern sensibilities. I was most shocked by the revelation that my international peers held a wide range of views about American democracy, many of them critical. For example, a Qatari boy nonchalantly described the legislation of Sharia Law in his country, which prosecutes acts considered immoral by the Quran with corporal punishment, including the death penalty.2 Further, he explained Qatar’s monarchical government in which enfranchisement was little more than nominal.3 Trying to mask my horror, I asked how he could speak contentedly about blatant violations of human rights. He laughed and replied, “Maybe our government does not grant us democracy, but it does guarantee us health care and housing, and what does a person really need?”

Initially, I was stunned by his attitude. In American culture, the constitutional principles of universal suffrage, democratic representation, and a fair judiciary are revered as inalienable rights. I hadn’t considered that anyone, no matter their nationality, could feel otherwise. Yet, my friend’s implicit discussion of the conflict between freedom and security had value. Although he did not persuade me toward his authoritarian values, our conversation revealed why he ridiculed my democracy. Having lived his entire life in a nation which favored safety over liberty, his outlook was shaped by those values. Likewise, I realized my outlook was shaped by the American values of my culture and education. Both of us were the products of our circumstances; all it took for me to comprehend this was a simple conversation.

Not only did I gain a mutual understanding with my acquaintance, but also a newfound appreciation for the practice of civil discourse. The virtues of interparty discourse stem from its difficulty. Indeed, civil discourse requires you to look for common ground and consensual resolutions on issues, no matter the political distance between you and your opposition. You need to fully consider the points that others make before you begin your retort; perhaps you will realize merits to another’s argument. At the very least, civil discourse illuminates the reasons behind an argument. Although this is easier said than done, the benefits of discourse are incalculable. Civil discourse can introduce you to new ideas and push you to reconsider your preconceptions. In my case, my friend did not sway me in favor of theological monarchism. Still, our debate was not for naught. Defined by open-mindedness and respect, discourse is an essential facet of building public and unrestricted dialogue. More importantly though, discourse enables you to empathize and connect with people whose ideas you may find objectionable.

Listening to a political opposite express his views helped me to consider why he believed what he did. It also pushed me to examine my rationale for my own beliefs. Considering how my upbringing and surroundings shaped my perspective enabled me to question and strengthen my views. Further, my introduction to civil discourse put American political polarization into perspective. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans view the opposing party “very unfavorably.”4 However, if I can civilly debate with someone who believes in Sharia Law and whose core values clash with mine, so can a Democrat and Republican, whose principles are cut from the same ideological cloth. Our nation’s issue is not a lack of political uniformity, but instead a lack of mutual understanding. Unable to empathize with each other, many Americans have taken to caricaturing the differences between themselves and their political opposition. Productive civil discourse would push us to understand the reasoning behind our beliefs and the beliefs of our political adversaries. Then, the American people could realize that our opposing views are informed by a shared set of ideals. If every Democrat endeavored to have a single conversation with a Republican, and vice versa, the nation would finally notice that, no matter an American’s political affiliation, his or her worldview prioritizes the protection of democracy, liberty, and meritocracy. America’s only hope of rebuilding a cohesive society is achieving nationwide cognizance that we are not quite as divided as we assume.

Works Cited
Inklebarger, Timothy. “Oak Park, River Forest Vote for Clinton.” The Wednesday Journal, Nov. 15, 2017.,-River-Forest-vote-for-Clinton/.

Vinod, Robin. “General Laws and Regulations in Doha Qatar.” Online Qatar, Feb. 25, 2019.

“Freedom in the World 2019: Qatar.” Freedom House, n.d. Website.

“Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center, Jun. 14, 2014.

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