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The New (Un)Civil (Lack of) Discourse

There are some big holes in the sidewalks of Nairobi, as I discovered on my trip a couple weeks ago — big enough to swallow a distracted human who wasn’t watching his next step — as well as large concrete stairways without rails, even at schools where kids run around a lot.

From an American perspective, these hazards looked like lawsuits waiting to happen.

But that’s because there’s an assumption behind the American perspective: If I fall in a hole in the sidewalk or from a stairway without rails, it’s the fault of whomever didn’t fill the hole or install rails. The assumption in Kenya would be: If you fall in a hole or tumble off the stairs, you should have watched where you were going. Who exactly are you going to sue for your own mistake?

The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve realized that there are different logics in different parts of the world. What makes sense in one part makes no sense in another. Minor hazards in African cities are one example, but there are plenty of others, like . . .

Italy: An American thinks, Why don’t you close the windows to keep the flies from getting in? An Italian countryside restaurant manager — one of them, at least — thinks, If I close the windows, how will the flies get out? The American assumes the flies can be avoided. The Italian assumes they can’t. Thus, two different logics.

East Asia: An American thinks, The floor is dirty, so why would you sit on it or eat on it? An Asian thinks, The floor is clean, so why would you walk on it with your dirty shoes? Two different assumptions about the state of the floor, two different logics for how to treat it.

The examples could go on and on, but you get the point. In cross-cultural communication, this can lead to a lot of fascinating observations.

But you not only find different logics in different places of the world. You also find it within the same culture.

When you do — when different logics are applied to controversial social issues like marriage, birth control, abortion, gun control, racial divisions, educational requirements, and so on — they aren’t nearly as fascinating. They might be if people actually tried to understand how others came to conclusions that are reasonable to them. But most don’t. Most people expect the other side — those approaching an issue with a different logic — to listen to their arguments, which, of course, “any rational person” would understand. The result is a lot of accusations of the other side being irrational. Vitriol and venom then muck up the public discussion — to the point that it really isn’t a discussion anymore. It’s just a bunch of noise.

That noise gets pointlessly vicious at times. People with almost zero understanding about a situation are calling each other idiots online simply because they have a forum to do so. But even those who actually want to argue their point seem to have lost the art of understanding the other side’s point of view.

Civil discourse really isn’t very civil anymore, and it can hardly be described as discourse most of the time. It seems that all we have today, with a few notable exceptions, are people spouting off their own opinions without any awareness of the other side’s logic, never realizing that their points aren’t hitting home.

I don't think there's ever been a time in history with so many words and so little power in them. 

Welcome to My World?

Pick any current issue, and you’ll see this frustrating dynamic playing out. It's as if everyone assumes their own worldview is obvious and others "just don't get it."

As I began writing this, for example, I saw several posts about a Supreme Court hearing — from both sides of the issue — saying something like: “Justice So-and-So completely crushed/eviscerated/etc. the other side.” Well, no, he/she didn’t. Actually, the justice simply made a good point or raised a concern. Hyperbole might get you some clicks, but it won’t help your argument. I’d much rather see a post that recognizes how the other side might cogently respond and yet reasonably hold to its own position, not one that boasts about how your own side scored a point.

What seems to be missing in online conversations and broadcast talk is the ability to get inside the other person’s logic and (1) at least acknowledge it or, (2) even better, find the inconsistencies within that other logic and argue your point from the other person’s worldview.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all things are relative, or that all points of view are equally valid. There are absolutes in this world, and I have really strong thoughts on many of them. I just recognize that, even though there are absolutes, our interpretation of the absolutes may or may not be universally logical. Or if it is, that it's still worth knowing why those on the other side of an issue believe what they believe. 

Of course, you may be exactly right about whatever you believe. If so, congratulations. The point I’m making is that you aren’t very likely to influence the view of others unless you can get inside their logic — their worldview, their basic assumptions — and discuss the issue from within that logic rather than attacking it from the outside. And what’s the point of having the right view if you don’t know how to express it and perhaps win other people to it?

You Thought You Won That Argument?

I know very few people who are able to cross logic systems well. I’m not there yet, though I think I’m learning. But I can at least see why it’s important, and I’m not so sure many people do.

Even as I write this, I can almost hear my friends on the left thinking, “Yes, conservatives really need to do that.” I can also hear my friends on the right thinking, “Yes, liberals really need to do that.” That would actually prove my point. From what I can tell, almost no one is doing this well, the processes of logic really are atrocious on all sides, and most arguments out there are so ineffective that they amount to nothing but noise.

Is this really where the new age of communication has led us — to millions of voices talking past each other, sometimes descending into personal insult, with everyone walking away thinking they won an argument? Has everyone lost the ability to say, “I see your position, but I disagree with it. Here’s why . . .”?

It looks that way, but I hope not. There’s a lot more to discussion than simply spouting off a few points that don’t address the counterpoints. Occasionally, reasonable voices go a lot deeper and then rise to the surface to be heard. I’d love to hear more of them — because with value-neutral cultural differences, the dynamics of communication are merely fascinating. With weighty social/religious issues, they are absolutely vital.