GHG’s Guide to Civil Discourse

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If you follow this blog, you know that Grey Havens Group is a non-profit committed to the values of literacy, imagination, community and inclusion. We host thoughtful book discussions, both online and in person, for children, young adults and adults. We work to maintain civil discourse in every forum in which we speak as a group. Each of our values plays a role in that.

Literacy is more than the ability to read; it is about our relationship to information. One can be considered literate in a number of areas. People commonly speak about cultural literacy, political literacy, even computer literacy. To be literate is to value curiosity enough to want to look thoroughly at a topic and to be willing to allow yourself to grow based on what you learn. It is both the starting point and the goal of civil discourse. We believe that there is always more to learn!

Imagination is also vital to civil discourse. Imagination is what makes it possible for us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It is where empathy comes from and, without empathy, we would not get very far in our attempts to understand each other.

Community and inclusion are complementary values. We strive to create communities around books and the imagination where everyone is able to feel safe and heard. A commitment to civil discourse is the first step in making this possible. It is a responsibility that we take very seriously. It means that we have high expectations for our members but the rewards are tremendous. Here is a basic guide to keeping conversation thoughtful and respectful.

Hate Speech: Let’s start by looking at something that we wish we did not have to examine–hate speech. Hate speech is defined as “speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” Just don’t do it, ever. Do not make generalized statements about any group of people. To do so denies the richness of the human experience and seriously undermines our group’s commitment to inclusion.

We do not want to remove anyone from a group but we believe that a reasonable person should be able to recognize hate speech. Using it is always grounds for removal from both online and live discussions.

Logical Fallacies: One way to keep a conversation from becoming heated and possibly hurtful is to be conscious of the ways we structure our arguments. Looking out for logical fallacies is a way to keep ourselves honest in discussion and to look more deeply at the source of our opinions. Logical fallacies include ad hominem attacks in which one attacks the person making the argument rather than the argument, itself. Other examples are stereotyping or making an argument that relies on a false generalization and a straw man attack in which one sets up a simplified version of an argument only to knock it down. Straw man attacks typically involve characterizing a point of view in a way that robs the point of view of its complexity.

This is a good resource for learning about logical fallacies. When our young adult group, Grey Havens YA, read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, we put together this short, fun guide to clear thinking that we call “Think Like Sherlock.” We hope it will also be of use.

Statistics: Statistics are a powerful way to communicate information. They can be very persuasive because numbers do not lie. Numbers do not necessarily tell the whole truth, however, and, precisely because they can be persuasive, we should be careful about how we use them. Fact checking and citing sources (to the extent that this is possible in a spontaneous conversation) is a basic responsibility when it comes to using statistics but it is also important to recognize the limitations of numbers. The statement that 3 out of 4 dentists recommend Trident for their patients who chew gum tells us nothing about why those dentists recommend Trident or even how that statistic was calculated. Try not to reduce a complex argument to simple math.

Identifying Perspectives: People draw different conclusions based on the same information. This is because we each have different perspectives on that information. When speaking, try to identify your perspective as one of many possible perspectives. Try to welcome other perspectives.

When we are interpreting information, we use our perspectives, including our experience and empathy, to determine a philosophical stance. This process takes place whether or not we are consciously aware of it. Try to be aware of your own philosophical stance and to state it clearly along with the information offered in support of that stance. Do you have a strong belief about what prompts dentists to recommend Trident? Express it as a belief rather than as a fact and invite others to do the same.

Sometimes, we surprise even ourselves when we attempt to articulate a philosophy. It can be enlightening to examine what you really believe and why. This website offers tools, such as the political bias test that compares political knowledge with political bias, to help you examine your beliefs. Our willingness to examine our own beliefs encourages others to examine theirs.

Every week in live discussions and every day in our online communities, Grey Havens Group members demonstrate their ability to think critically and conduct civil discussions. The process is never perfect but, because we are committed to creating an inclusive community, it is vital that we never stop trying. Thank you for sticking with us on this adventure.

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