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Opinion: Let’s try to be civil enough to keep arguing

In the midst of one after another political slight, I cannot stop thinking of something my colleague and prominent blogger, Seth Masket, posted on his Facebook page earlier this year.

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The comment got a few laughs and sarcastic comments like “low bar,” but recent research suggests this action is worthy of more serious attention.

The state representative was not really expressing bipartisanship, but possibly some measure of caring or, at the least, respect for their joint mission.

Deborah Avant

This kind of respect is important for our future — not necessarily because it generates agreement, but because it allows us to keep arguing.

Fixing a political opponent’s collar recognizes some joint enterprise, an interdependence that requires ongoing conversation. Conversation need not be polite; it often is not.

But finding even minimal community, just enough to keep talking — what we call civil action — makes it more likely that we can manage interdependence without violence.

Civil action has been part of the American experience for over 400 years. Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, was among the first to practice what he called “mere” civility according to political theorist Teresa Bejan. Williams encouraged engagement and conversation even among those who vehemently disagreed.

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Under his leadership, Rhode Island was radically inclusive, open to Native American (“Barbarians”) and Catholic (“Antichristians”), among others. Their debate was not polite. Williams’ own words were often biting.

But the colony’s raucous politics maintained a system that respected human beings, including them in political discussion and even preventing them from being enslaved.

Even in the midst of war, civil action can reduce violence. In Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence, my co-authors and I document how civil action can maintain relationships, lower violence in particular locales, and sometimes even help end wars in cases from Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia.

Recognizing what they share — walking on the same street, living in the same town or working in the same government — can lead people to practice talking even when it is disagreeable.

These conversations generate skills, including finding ways to connect and developing thicker skin, which are critical for living in diverse settings.

Any of us can practice civil action. It involves not cutting off an argument for its incivility but by finding avenues to keep speaking even if it is tough. Companies can stick up for the migrant workers they need even if it annoys some shareholders and explain why.

University professors can connect with students in office hours or extra-curricular activities in ways that make it easier to stick with unpleasant conversations when contentious issues come up in class. Members of Congress can recognize shared experience such as the “For Country” Caucus in which the U.S. Representative of Colorado’s 6th District, Jason Crow, participates.

And opponents can act together when their views overlap – as Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet did when they supported cybersecurity measures to protect the energy grid.

Even if this does not lead to agreement, it can allow people to argue more productively — something we all will be able to practice as debates on impeachment heat up.

Civil action’s value is to maintain enough connection to allow us to exchange information, even when we disagree. Rather than focusing only on agreement or “calling out” slights, civil action can help us practice, and even value, productive arguments among our diverse citizenry – those that allow us to keep talking.

Deborah Avant is a professor and Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

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