Can We Find Our Way to More Civil Political Discourse?

It’s not impossible, even though it often feels that way.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

Civility is generally defined as reasonable and respectful (if not polite and courteous) speech and behavior. Although there has always been a chasm in positions and priorities between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals/progressives, the tone and intensity in disagreement has escalated dramatically in recent years. The volume has become louder, discourse more coarse, disputes more heated and angry, and conflicts more extreme. 

During the Obama administration, there was a noticeable hardening of partisan positions within the US Congress wherein members of the two major parties began to view each other with greater suspicion and animosity, and treat them more explicitly as adversaries to be rebuffed. Subsequently, this disconnect has only gotten worse, and bipartisan compromise, an essential vehicle of functional and effective governance, seemed to become extinct.

It’s no coincidence that this progression coincides with the emergence of social media and the proliferation of its various platforms, perhaps most notably Facebook. While this issue has concerned me for some time, I’m moved to write about it now, based on recent personal experience. 

Like most people, I have certain distinct leanings with reference to political philosophy and values and these carry over into my views on social and economic issues. Appreciating how contentious the sociopolitical climate is on Facebook, I make a conscious effort to be judicious in my politically oriented postings. As a result, over time I post less frequently and with increasing care. Against this backdrop and in response to current events I posted the single sentence: “When you open the door to discriminating against others based on personal beliefs/values, it swings both ways.” 

To me, this seemed accurate, fair, and non-controversial—and I was quickly proven wrong. A friend with a diametrically opposed political philosophy pounced on it like a pit-bull on a steak, leading to an exchange of comments during which he unleashed a barrage of overgeneralizations, innuendo, and insults, some of which had disturbing racial overtones. For my part, I attempted to confront these misinterpretations and affronts without further escalating what had rapidly become an emotionally charged argument. 

Ironically, this person is a friend of mine in real life with whom I’ve attended many twelve-step meetings, and I know him to be a good person (we had a rapprochement shortly thereafter). Friends with perspectives similar to mine quickly rose to the defense of my post, and me. I received lovely support and praise for my “restraint” and “tolerance,” to which I replied that my internal reactions were very different but I know that with some personalities continuing to engage in a partisan back-and-forth only accelerates conflict and contributes more negativity/toxicity, and I had simply tasted enough of that for the time being. A mutual friend commented that this entire thread saddened her. It saddened me too. 

The Role of Cognitive Distortions

A number of psychological phenomena influence people to dig further into their existing positions, effectively strengthening them (often even in the face of evidence that contradicts those positions), making the acknowledgement of divergent viewpoints—and in turn, finding common ground and compromise—less likely. Among these is a range of cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions represent natural tendencies toward irrational thoughts and beliefs people have related to themselves and the world around them that are reinforced over time. These thoughts/belief patterns are irrational in that they are based on assumptions and incomplete information.They’re often subtle and difficult to recognize, particularly when they’re a regular feature of our day-to-day thinking. 

Global Labeling occurs when we generalize one or two qualities into a negative overall judgment. We assign judgments of value to others (and to ourselves) based on one instance or limited experience.Instead of describing the specifics of a person, we label them globally. In the current political dichotomy this includes the increasing use of pejorative labels—because he’s a republican/conservative, he’s a fascist and supports white nationalism. Because she’s a democrat/liberal, she’s a “libtard” and supports unrestricted immigration/open borders. 

Overgeneralization takes limited experience and information and generalizes it to an overall pattern or set of characteristics. This can lead to sweeping generalizations to describe people with different or opposing positions.All republicans/conservatives are like “this” (ignorant, selfish, racist or racist sympathizing) and all democrats/liberals are like “this” (elitist, communist, snowflakes).

Disqualifying the Positive may acknowledge the existence of positive qualities but minimizes or outright rejects their relevance. This is an especially malignant distortion, since it can fuel the continuation of negative perceptions even in the face of ample evidence to the contrary. For example, in republican/conservative circles, Obamacare has been demonized (even though its model originated at the Heritage Foundation, a well-known conservative think tank). While it had some clear drawbacks, it nonetheless resulted in tens of millions more people having health insurance, provided coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, and allowed adult children to be covered by their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26. 

Mind Reading manifests as the inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking or what their motivations are. Of course, it is possible to have an idea of what other people are thinking, but this distortion refers to the negative interpretations that we jump to—often assuming the worst. Republicans/conservatives are motivated by greed and disdain for the poor and non-white; democrats/liberals are motivated by hatred of the wealthy and the belief that they “know better.”

Emotional Reasoning refers to the acceptance of one’s feelings as facts. “If I feel it, it must be true.” When we encounter posts or memes on social media that support our views and fit how we feel, we tend to believe it.

Today’s 24/7 society has myriad platforms that express and reinforce these cognitive distortions. Negativity on social media is nearly constant. Continuous exposure to anger, fear, and intense negativity creates stress that keeps the human fight-flight-freeze response stuck in the “on” position triggering toxic neurochemical reactions in the body that lead to, wait for it . . . more fear, anger, and stress. Moreover, empathy—our sense of commonality and connection with others—that acts as a mediating influence, tends to evaporate in online communication where it’s so much easier to dismiss, insult, degrade, or humiliate someone else. 

Ways Forward to More Reasoned and Civil Political Discourse

I frame the following approaches in terms of “we” because this process involves all of us. The quality of our overall environment, including our political dialogue, is a function of what each and every one of us contributes to it. There are times our contributions are helpful and healthy and times when they are far from that. As individuals we can consciously set the intention to contribute to the totality of our environment as positively as we are capable of, knowing that our capabilities fluctuate from day to day and even moment-to-moment. 

  • We need to strive for conscious awareness of our own internal emotional reactions, and realize when we are caught up in one of the cognitive distortions described above.
  • We need to acknowledge (to ourselves and others) the value and validity of (at least) aspects of opposing positions and points of view.
  • We need to acknowledge (to ourselves and others) the downsides and weaknesses of and constructive criticize our own “side.”
  • We need to endeavor to fact check. Sometimes the information and memes we encounter on online that fit seductively with our particular partisan leanings and raise our pulse and blood pressure are simply inaccurate. Other times, news items may be accurate but actually occurred in the past—months or even years ago.
  • As challenging as it may be, we need to expose ourselves to alternative and opposing perspectives and the people who express them. When possible, try to keep an open mind to those views and an open heart to those who espouse them.
  • We need to be aware of our attachment to the need to “be right” and how this need usually obstructs our ability to be centered and feel at peace.
  • We need to exercise discernment, knowing that we can choose not to participate in contentious discussions online or in-person, and if we have already started down such a path we can choose to opt out—at any time.
  • We need to learn and practice the skill of agreeing to disagree with as much grace as we can mobilize, and to disagree without being overly disagreeable. 

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery (coming July, 2018)