The Core Issue in Debating with Civility

Politics is a world unto itself. The way politicians behave is something different from everyday life. It seems you could treat political debate as something fairly irrelevant to your real working relationships.

The problem is that political debate has some special qualities. First, it receives a lot of news coverage. What gets the most attention in news reports are the most uncivil, barbed comments. An individual saying something offensive makes for a prized sound bite in the intensely time-pressured world of broadcast news. Second, politicians have a high status, even when they enjoy very negative approval ratings from the general population. Their positions bring them consequential power and their public presence brings them fame, at least within the realm of their local constituency.

The quality of political debate has implications for a community’s standards for proper behavior.

The key quality of civility in debate is respect.

People contradict this quality often in political debate. Instead of debating the issues, politicians often attack the character of their opponents. They make accusations of bad character or dubious intentions. They encourage their followers to dislike their opponents.

The alternative approach focuses on the issues. This approach is much more challenging. It requires the capacity to articulate the essential quality of the issues, such as approaches to job creation or deficit reduction. Long discussions lose the attention of audiences but short essential points are difficult to generate in the course of a debate. Even more importantly, it is difficult for politicians to articulate a credible alternative that everyone will like. The more specific the proposal, the greater the chances it will inconvenience someone in the audience.

So, attacking the person is just easier than proposing effective alternatives.

The problem is that this low quality debating is damaging the political process. If people imitate this form of debate in their work life, with labor negotiations or management planning, the outcomes will be damaging as well.

You debate important issues with individuals who have important roles in your future. An ongoing working relationship is a prized outcome of any serious debate. Showing respect and expressing respect for the other party is an essential quality of assuring that relation remains civil and productive.

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