Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Art of Civil Discourse

I love to talk. This probably doesn't come as a surprise to most of you. But I do. I love to talk. But more than talking, I love to have conversations. I love discussing topics, hearing different sides, engaging in civil discourse. I grew up in a household where each night at dinner, we would have discussions about topics in the news. I grew up in the 70s. Women's rights were key topics of conversation. So was the Vietnam War. Integration of neighborhoods and schools was a topic much discussed. And, as I got older and more rebellious, I would come up with the topics - why drugs and prostitution should be legalized, why organized religion was the root of all our problems, why finishing high school wasn't really that important in the long run.

Now, I might have started these discussions to shock my parents (and their poor friends who happened to stop by for dessert) but I learned a great deal from them. I learned how to listen. I learned how to respond. I learned to respect the opinions of others even if I didn't agree with them. Basically, I learned what was acceptable and what was not in a discussion. So even if I couldn't get anyone to agree with my point that high school was a waste of time and so was going to temple each week, I did get them to listen to my point of view and I got to hear theirs, without being told I was immature, just a child, or just had to do what I was told. And I did find that this art of civil discourse came in handy. I was notorious, for example, for getting teachers to change assignments, using respect and reason.

Cut to the present day. I still find myself enjoying discussions. But more and more, I am finding that, online at least, respectful disagreements are extremely difficult to have. I have found myself following conversations in plurk or twitter about - well about plurk or twitter - and the comments made about certain individuals are bordering on rude. Why is it that people feel the need to make disparaging comments about a person's behavior just because they choose to use or not use an online tool? I have also found that comments to my blog are seen as negative simply because they disagree with my point of view. Now I do love that my readers show support. However, I want to hear other views. It's one way I learn. If I only hear from people who agree with everything I say, then how will I ever learn of other ways of doing, thinking, teaching?

One such situation was a comment to a blog in which I had briefly mentioned the topic of conversation for a new webcast. Chris Craft did exactly what blogs are designed to do. He added to the conversation. I found it quite interesting that, while I was in the middle of a discussion with him about my topic of choice, others felt the need to support me against this "academic, snobby, and uppity" person. I was excited by what he had to offer to my blog. And I added some books to my reading list so I can learn more. I, myself, did not find him "academic, snobby, and uppity." He was not disrespectful or insulting. He was broadening my area of understanding.

So I ask: When did we lose the art of Civil Discourse? When did we forget that disagreements are what move us forward? When did it become so awful to give a differing opinion? I'm obviously not the only one asking these questions. I have been hearing grumblings of the need to read blogs written by people with differing viewpoints. Even ISTE's May issue of Leading and Learning ran an article, called "Don't Feed the Trolls", about teaching students Civil Discourse.

This Sunday morning, Maria Knee and I are starting a new EdTechTalk show called Conversations. The whole point of this show is to give a venue for Civil Discourse. Come join us and voice your opinions. As long as you do it respectfully, we'd love to have you. I truly want to learn. Do you?

Picture 1 by Inkyhack in Flickr.
Picture 2 by Svenwork in Flickr.


Cathy Nelson said...

If people new Chris f2f they would know he is not that way. he's really a NICE guy!!(Oh and did I mention he is from my neck of the woods?) He has often stretched my mind way beyond my own self centered way of thinking. And f2f it is really FUN to debate with him too. He can very smoothly take both sides of an issue, leaving you in the middle questioning all sides. He's a GREAT guy, and I really expect big things from him someday.

This is great food for thought. Now I need to go look at my own stream on Twitter and Plurk and see if i was out of line...Apologies up front if I was!!

tsakshaug said...

Where is civil discourse? Have a look at the 24 hour news channels- yelling and talking over each other all the time. Quick quips and "soundbite" sized responses are what we see and hear everyday. Is it a function of how "fast paced" and "pressured" our lives are today or is the uncivil discourse causing the pressure and fast pace?
People don't want to take the time to sit down and talk, discuss, come to an understanding, that is what is missing in the world.
And if you don't agree with me........

TJ Shay said...

My wife, the English teacher, frequently talks about the 'tone' of what someone said. I think one of the things that gets lost in the written & digital format is the intended tone.

I often have been misunderstood on Twitter and Plurk because I am a jokester. I always say "If it isn't fun, I am not doing it." However, depending on your background/life experience, you might find my comments sarcastic/rude/flippant. I have started to put 'joking' in my messages, so people read it in the right tone. If you knew me in real life, you would know my tone.

As I was reading your post, I was thinking about a Twitter discussion I had the other night with Gary Stager. For those who don't know him, my take on him is that he wants to make people think. He asks tough questions! When I said that I was having students reviewing software in my night class, he said that he had spent the last 20 years wondering why people do that. If I didn't know him personally and know where his head/heart is with education, I might have been offended (sometimes I have a thin skin). Instead, it helped me to clarify in my mind the exact reason I do what I do. The results of which, I blogged.

I believe in social discourse and LOVE a good makes me feel totally alive. I think we need to make sure our tone is understood with people we don't know personally. I stopped commenting on blogs for a while because of a rude comment that followed mine (I then redacted my comment).

I love comments on my blog and I like when someone disagrees. It forces me to rethink what I have said and, in some cases, clarify! That is the joy of this great conversation!

So, sorry Lisa, I am going to have to agree with your post!

Lisa Parisi said...

Cathy - I have found, through this blog, that Chris is a considerate person. I was thrilled that he contributed to the conversation and will continue looking for his comments.

T - You are right. Our role models do not always model civil discourse. We lost a fabulous example in Tim Russert. I know I will spend much more time this coming school year on teaching civil discourse to my students. I think it is of vital importance in this world so full of online collaboration.

TJ - I learned early that sarcasm really does not come across well in writing. Tone is everything. Emoticons can help but don't always. But I am glad you agree with my post. ;)

una raimondo said...

If we are educators, civil discourse and the art of it is considered confrontational, improper and grievable if teacher unions are involved. In fact higher administration in schools do not know how to engage in discourse choosing instead to go for "everyone should agree or nothing gets done" attitude. This is the safe way. It is styming the school hallways and disengaging students. I will definately watch for more on your EdTechTalk

mindelei said...

I discovered your conversation in relation to civil discourse on Plurk. Admittedly, I was interested in "what had happened" and wanted to check out what could be considered "controversy." I won't deny it.

In all honesty, I had not previously encountered the term "civil discourse" but I have actually been thinking about it a lot lately. I have questioned why we no longer possess the ability to agree to disagree within the country. I have even questioned if there are certain regions of the country where this idea seems more acceptable. (I have visited this idea because I have lived in various areas of the US. One of which has struck me as being most open to discussing disagreements without becoming emotionally attached.) I have also questioned why people seem to be afraid to disagree with one another (is it a fear of the backlash that seems to come about afterward), and frequently focus on only those things that they do agree with.

So...I guess I'm here to say that I'm still questioning and wondering why people seem to take offense so quickly and easily. I applaud you for your willingness to share with others who have differing opinions and your desire to bring that very concept into the conversation.

Plus...a quick thank you to Chris for attempting to remove the dichotomy of intrinsic/extrinsic within the concept of motivations. It's true: we do have a tendency to get caught-up in false dichotomies and it's healthy to be reminded that we do have the option of looking beyond only two choices.