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Civil vs. Incivil Discourse

Oct. 30, 2013

  Photo by John Seyfried

“The Rise of Incivility” was the headline on an interesting dialogue published in the letters section of the New York Times this past Sunday. This exchange of views was presented in the broader context of recent commentaries asserting that political discourse in this country has broken down and that incivility is either a symptom or cause of the recent government shut down.

The initial letter in the dialogue was pegged to the tragic suicide some weeks ago of a young girl who had been viciously cyber-bullied by some of her peers. The writer suggested that this was an extreme and tragic manifestation of the fact that our society has become coarser and cruder in tone. He blamed this largely on digital communications and Internet anonymity enabling consequence-free hostility to spread unchecked. The other letter-writers responded to this idea, some disagreeing, others supporting the view that our society is becoming ruder and less civil.

I believe political discourse at its best involves an exchange of ideas and an attempt to understand different points of view. For this to happen, people need to be able to articulate their ideas. They also need to listen to the ideas of others. Such discourse requires a good measure of mutual respect.

An excellent example of political discourse was demonstrated here on October 8, when two leading economists, Arthur Laffer and Jared Bernstein, debated the role of the federal government in offsetting weak economies. Their fundamental positions differ greatly. Dr. Laffer advocates a very limited role for the federal government, Dr. Bernstein a much broader and more active role.

The two did not come to agreement on all issues. But they showed the value of reasoned argument and lively debate in political discourse. Both men were polite. They spoke freely, respected each other, and listened carefully to each other’s ideas.

Their discussion underscored the importance of mutual respect and listening. It modeled what we seek to emulate in education in general and here at Oberlin in particular. As educators, we work to foster political discourse inside and outside the classroom.

The need to listen is at the heart of the educational process. But it seems to be missing in much of the contemporary political discourse in this country, where raised voices, name-calling, taunting, and distortions of fact are all too frequently the norm.

Articulating one’s views is an important part of political discourse. But so is listening to the views of those who may disagree. A person can be a passionate advocate seeking to persuade others. Yet if that person doesn’t listen to and respect those who hold differing views, the chances that anyone’s mind will be changed are much diminished.

The great value of studying at a residential, liberal arts college is that political discourse can be practiced face-to-face in and out of the classrooms. By embracing mutual respect and civility in person, we are able to have meaningful conversations on difficult topics.

Such conversations are not just the basis for political discourse. They are an important part of the social and political process at Oberlin and in our country. Policies and practices—in government, in organizations, in businesses, and at Oberlin—are shaped by groups and individuals conceiving ideas and initiatives, nurturing them, and presenting them to the appropriate decision-making bodies. This process can take time. Done right it involves a lot of listening and thinking. But, in my view, it is the best way to achieve positive results. Our country and our world face many complex issues. Making progress in addressing any of them requires discourse and collaboration that is respectful and constructive. Otherwise, we’re just talking to—or shouting at—ourselves.


What an exciting season this has been for Oberlin men’s and women’s soccer. The Yeowomen are a talented, young group that has made good progress under first-year coach Dan Palmer, winning four games after posting but one victory in 2012.

On the men’s side, the soccer team is having an outstanding season. They are currently third in the North Coast Athletic Conference—one of the toughest Division III soccer conferences in the country—with a 4-1-2 conference record and are 12-2-3 overall. In front of a big, lively crowd this past weekend they played to a scoreless, double-overtime draw with Ohio Wesleyan University, ranked number one in the country and the defending national champion. On October 19, the Yeomen beat DePauw which was ranked 11th in the nation at the time.

The Yeomen play fast, attacking soccer. Please try and go support the team at its final home game tonight—Wednesday, October 30—against Allegheny College. The opening touch is scheduled for 7 p.m. at our Fred Shults Field.


Looking ahead, please remember to exercise your right to vote in the elections on Tuesday, November 5. There are a number of important local initiatives on the ballot, including providing financial support of Oberlin’s excellent public library. So please get informed and get to the polls.

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  • Write anything you like as long as it’s civil and productive. Attack ideas if you wish, but not people. Oberlin = love, remember? (Seriously. Be nice or your comment will be removed.)

President Krislov,

I'll start by thanking you for this reflection on conversation structures that affirm and support all involved (I don't like the word "civil" because of its historical usage to undermine non-European/middle-class/cis-male individuals and how they choose to express themselves). It is important that we recognize that conversations, and political dialogue in particular, are journeys that only work if everyone is brought along.

What I see as most important, however, is the building of conversation spaces that are both inclusive and supportive. I agree with many who say that our national discourse has become less supportive and constructive; however, I don't believe that this is because "we" have become nastier people. As long as we try to have conversations in ways and in spaces that do not encourage true dialogue, or if those who wish to participate are not given the adequate tools to participate effectively, the conversation is "un-civil" before it even starts.

I know that you have been committed for many years to helping those who are historically left out of conversations access the tools needed to participate honestly in dialogue. I hope that we can continue this work together on this campus as we work to restructure how Student-Trustee interactions occur. If only one side sets up a conversation, any "civility" is a front for the reality of unequal power dynamics. Oberlin should, and can, remain at the forefront of providing its students access to the needed tools and spaces to be effective and productive in their growth as politically-engaged human beings.

John Bergen (Oct. 30, 2013)