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The Meaning of Civility

by

Guy Burgess, Ph.D. and Heidi Burgess, Ph.D.

Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado

Copyright 1997 by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

The increasingly vocal campaign for civility in public discourse reflects an understandable and widespread frustration with the current tenor of political debate. There is a growing realization that our inability to deal with a broad range of problems is largely attributable to the destructive ways in which the issues are being addressed. This raises a crucial and increasingly controversial question--what exactly do we mean by "civility"?

Clearly, civility has to mean something more that mere politeness. The movement will have accomplished little if all it does is get people to say, "excuse me please", while they (figuratively) stab you in the back. Civility also cannot mean "roll over and play dead." People need to be able to raise tough questions and present their cases when they feel their vital interests are being threatened. A civil society cannot avoid tough but important issues, simply because they are unpleasant to address. There must also be more to civility than a scrupulous adherence to the laws governing public-policy decision making. Clearly, there are numerous instances in which the parties to public-policy conflicts act in ways which are destructive and inappropriate, even though they are (and should continue to be) legal.

In short, any reasonable definition of civility must recognize that the many differing interests which divide our increasingly diverse society will produce an endless series of confrontations over difficult moral and distributional issues. Often these issues will have an irreducible win-lose character and, hence, not be amenable to consensus resolution. While continuing confrontation is inevitable, the enormous destructiveness which commonly accompanies these confrontations is not.

In our work at the University of Colorado's Conflict Research Consortium, we have been developing an approach which we call "constructive confrontation." This approach combines an understanding of conflict processes, dispute resolution, and advocacy strategies to help disputants better advance their interests. In addition to explaining why the politeness embodied in conventional definitions of "civility" is important, we also identify a number of other areas in which adversaries, decision makers, and those caught in the middle can work individually and collectively to increase the constructiveness of public debate. Examples of these areas include:

Separating People from the Problem

First, and most obviously, is a commitment to civility in the traditional and relatively narrow sense of the word. People need to recognize that other thoughtful and caring people have very different views on how best to address their community's many complex problems. Constructive debate needs to focus on solutions which are most likely to be successful, and not upon personal attacks leveled by adversaries against one another. This is summed up by Roger Fisher, Bill Ury and Bruce Patton, authors of the New York Times best-seller Getting to Yes, who advise disputants to "separate the people from the problem." When this is not done, conflicts tend to escalate so much that key decisions are made on the basis of very personal, "us vs. them" animosities rather than the relative merits of competing problem-solving strategies.

Obtain Available Technical Facts

Many public policy disputes involve factual disagreements which are amenable to resolution through some type of fact-finding process. Failure to discern available facts substantially increases the probability that the situation will be so misunderstood that the solutions adopted will fail to achieve the desired results. Constructive civil debate, therefore, requires that the parties work together to resolve factual disagreements wherever possible. There are, of course, many cases in which factual issues can't be resolved because of irreducible uncertainties associated with the limits of scientific inquiry. When, this is true, contending parties need to publically explain the reasoning behind their differing interpretations of the factual information which is available.

Limit Interpersonal Misunderstandings

Often the adversaries proceed on the basis of very inaccurate (and usually unjustifiably evil) images of the interests, positions, and actions of others. Civility requires that contending parties make an honest and continuing effort to understand the views and reasoning of their opponents. The community needs to condemn the deliberate distortion of information and the presentation of unbalanced views as unacceptable.

Use Fair Processes

Civility also requires that the public issues be addressed by a process that is fair in both appearance and fact. Public input needs to be honestly solicited and considered. Decisions also need to be made on the basis of substantive arguments. For example, advocates of the status quo should not be able to prevail by simply introducing endless procedural delays which prevent alternative proposals from being considered or acted upon.

Limit Escalation

The most destructive confrontation process, escalation, arises when accidental or intentional provocations beget greater counter-provocations in an intensifying cycle that transforms a substantive debate characterized by honest problem solving into one in which mutual hatred becomes the primary motive. De-escalation and escalation avoidance strategies are needed to limit this problem.

Honor Legitimate Uses of Legal, Political, and Other Types of Power.

Public policy disputes involve issues which people feel very strongly about. Given this, disputing parties can be expected to use all of the powers available to them in an attempt to prevail. In our political system this means that people are entitled to use the legal and political system to advance their interests. We should respect this right and not attempt to require that the parties renounce their power options as a precondition for discussion.

Separate Win/Win from Win/Lose Issues

Wherever possible, the parties should try to reframe the conflict in ways which transform win-lose confrontations into win-win opportunities. In cases where this is not possible, the parties need to recognize and accept the fact that political and legal institutions will repeatedly be called upon to make the tough choices.

Limit the Backlash Effect

While political, legal or other types of force may produce short term victory, they also tend to generate a powerful backlash. People hate to be forced to do things against their will and can be expected to launch a "counterattack" at the earliest opportunity. The best way to limit this backlash effect is for parties to take positions which can be justified on the basis of broadly acceptable principles of fairness which all members of society have an interest in supporting. While such justifications cannot be expected to convert all opponents, they can be expected to increase the parties' base of support by attracting some opponents as well as a larger number of "middle of the roaders." This emphasis upon the justification tends to produce more reasonable positions on both sides while making it more difficult for contending parties to pursue purely selfish objectives.

Keep Trying to Persuade and Allow Yourself to be Persuaded

One crucial element of civility is recognition by conflicting parties that it is possible that they are wrong and that the policies advocated by their opponents are actually better. This entails an obligation to seriously consider the persuasive arguments made by opponents and to carefully try to explain and justify one's own position to one's opponents and others.

More Persuasion, More Exchange, Less force

The best ways to produce stable, long-term policy change is through persuasion in which parties are converted to their opponent's point of view, or through exchange through which the parties negotiate mutually beneficial win-win trade-offs. This implies that the use of force should be minimized wherever possible.

More information on these and many related approaches for improving the civility of public discourse is available from the Consortium. Contact Guy Burgess or Heidi Burgess: Campus Box 580, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309; phone: (303)492-1635; fax:(303 492-2154; e-mail: crc@colorado.edu; web: http://www.colorado.edu/conflict.


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For More Information: Contact: Guy Burgess or Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Campus Box 327, Boulder, Colorado, 80309-0327, E-mail: burgess@colorado.edu Phone: (303) 492-1635; Fax: (303)492-2154.

Copyright 1997 by Conflict Research Consortium