Why I Believe in Civil Discussion

Why I Believe in Civil Discussion January 13, 2013

Just how civil atheists should be in their communication with the religious seems to be a perennial conversation in the atheist blogosphere, though these ideas are applicable much more broadly than just that. Fellow Patheos blogger Dan Fincke, who has long argued in favor of civil discussion, recently called my attention to a study that looked at the effect of online comments on a person’s perception of argument and information. This from Mother Jones:

In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

As I’ve said before, this rings very true for my own experience. I like to use young earth creationism as an example when I discuss this. See, I was raised a young earth creationist. In college, after months of arguing the point with a fellow student, I conceded the point and accepted that the evidence actually points to evolution. It was civil discussion that brought me to reconsider my views.

What is the argument generally made in favor of harsher tactics? This comment left on a thread on the topic on Dan’s facebook wall pretty much sums it up, at least in my understanding:

I think there is room for incivility and contempt. Telling somebody that they are an idiot for believing something can have a shock value. What the believers get all their lives is affirmations from their community that they are smart and bright and have the answer. Somebody sneering at them can seriously shake that smug and comfortable belief, and cause them to really examine where their belief came from and whether it is valid or not.

I have some problems with this argument.

For one thing, growing up as an evangelical Christian I was taught to expect those on the outside to hurl ridicule and insult at my beliefs. I was taught to expect persecution. I remember once, in a college class, I made my young earth creationist beliefs known. Several of the students responded with shock and contempt. For his part, the professor swiftly moved class discussion to other matters. The interaction lasted all of a few seconds, but the result was that I felt justified in my beliefs, felt virtuous in having suffered some sense of humiliation for the sake of Jesus (although I honestly didn’t feel humiliated; rather, I rejoiced at having faced persecution for Jesus’ sake). In the end, everything that happened merely confirmed what I had been taught.

But there was someone else, a young man I met in college around the same time I took that class. He was willing to listen to my young earth creationist arguments, and then answer them. He was willing to carefully explain where I went wrong in my understanding of evolution. We struck up a friendship, and we debated the issue for hours, weeks, months. Our friends got quite tired of it. Irreducible complexity, radiocarbon dating, fossils and rock layers. On and on and on. And I listened. And he listened. And I changed my mind.

Well of course, you say. That is because I was willing to listen. Well yes. But why was I so willing to listen? Because, I felt comfortable with him. He never called me stupid. He never mocked me. He never laughed at me. He simply engaged in discussion with me, responding to my points and listening to my responses in turn. I had been taught that those who believed in evolution didn’t have responses to the creationist arguments I grew up on, and that that was why they resorted to mockery. I had also been taught to view unbelievers as unkind and hateful people, and being called an idiot would only have confirmed this. Instead, here was someone actually responding to my points with solid arguments, and without contempt or mockery. This I had not expected. This gave me the room I needed to let down my defenses, consider the arguments, and be willing to change my mind.

There’s a reason Dale Carnegie called his timeless book “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” There’s a reason every talk I ever heard on evangelism focused on first befriending your target. There’s a reason the saying “honey draws more flies than vinegar” was coined. Does this mean we shouldn’t be willing to make a solid case for our beliefs, or that we should let others walk all over our views without responding? No. Does this mean we shouldn’t call out beliefs that are truly hateful and bigoted? No. Does that mean we shouldn’t be confident and assertive? No. It just means that if our goal is to change a person’s mind, the way we do these things matters.

In the end, being the butt of incivility from those on the other side of an issue didn’t “shock” me because I was taught to expect it, and to see it as persecution of my beliefs, and to view myself as a righteous martyr. Furthermore, such attacks merely confirmed for me that those making them were unkind and unhappy people, and that they resorted to insults because they had no actual arguments to make. Finally, when others responded to my beliefs with contempt and incivility my immediate reaction was to become defensive. It was civil discussion devoid of name calling or anger that allowed me to let down my guard and look rationally at my beliefs and the beliefs on the other side.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I am on the side of civil discussion. Oh, and in case you were wondering about that young man who spent so much time discussing evolution with me, his name is Sean. All these years later, he’s sitting beside me on the couch as I write this, our baby Bobby playing in between us. To quote Charlotte Bronte, “reader, I married him.”

As always, feel free to add your thoughts or point out things I might have missed.

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