Keeping It Civil

Woven through Harvard’s Justice Course is Professor Sandel’s view on the best way to handle civil discourse. We can use Sandel’s tips to make ourselves more effective and remain clear headed in potential conflict situations. I’ve been trying to make his tips a habit for how I deal with my kids.

The first thing that I noticed was, aside from ripping a supreme court justice by name, Sandel makes his arguments using the words of others. He’s not seeking credit for a point of view. This gives him space to change his mind in light of new information. Across the course, one senses his opinion but, on a wide range of issues, we never really know.

Being able to change direction is valuable because we suffer from Consistency Bias – a desire to stay-the-course based on previously held positions. There’s also tremendous social pressure to avoid change. Collectively, we find something comforting about a refusal to change.

Next Sandel, acknowledges that there are some issues (abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage) that are unlikely to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. With these issues, especially, Sandel advises that we search for an agreement that enables people to retain their deeply held convictions, while respecting individual rights and freedoms. 

A question to consider: “Can I make my point in a way that enables you to retain your existing position?” 

Consider doping: I can write that it is a question of honor; or I can list cheaters while complaining that they broke the rules. The first method is an appeal to a universal sense of justice. The second method is arguing my self-interest. Between the two methods, it is clear which argument is more persuasive, especially if the agreement of the cheaters is necessary to implement change.

Making a point as a general argument of virtue is more powerful than getting bogged down in accusations against individuals. This method leaves a wider path to forgiveness, resolution and reconciliation. The toughest ethical debates, and decisions, that we make happen with friends, lovers and family. Leaving the door open (both ways) is in everyone’s long-term interest.

I also noticed that Sandel would reach consensus on a general principle, then shift laterally to the contentious issue and see if existing views are consistent with the general principle.

Then Discuss.

Then Reconsider.

Then Repeat. 

This classical method of debate has nearly disappeared from our society. Most of us, lack role models to teach us how to implement it. At University, I learned debate technique from CNN’s Crossfire – if the guys weren’t arguing over each other then we thought it was boring! Needless to say, my technique failed with my first real-world encounter with senior management.

Other questions that I have been asking myself:

Of all the above, make points generally, has been the most useful. It even works with upset four-year olds!