Things that ‘incite but don’t invite’ (5 phrases to avoid when in pursuit of civil discourse)

December 22, 2012
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A bumper sticker I recently spotted, indicative of the problem at large. It reads, “If I agreed with you, then we’d both be wrong.”

Those familiar with my blog and my work know that I am concerned about the lack of civil discourse in today’s communications, especially in social media. People who claim to be passionate, knowledgeable, and educated seem not to value civility, and seem to have even less respect for the notion of a smart-debate that leads to changed minds—or at least to common ground.

I have started compiling a list of words and phrases that I shall choose to avoid as part of a personal mission to effect change here. Please add any others in a comment below. Similarly, if you disagree, by all means, please offer your push-back in a comment below.

For now, here’s my list:

  1. “Stop.  Just stop.”  This one frequently appears as if the person posting doesn’t even need to articulate a contrasting argument.  They simply post something like, “To those of you who say __________.  Stop. Just stop.”  Clearly this is not meant to be an ingredient of discourse.  It is meant as a one-sided, sanctimonious crowd-pleaser for those with whom there is already agreement.
  2. “Utter nonsense.”  Either inserted as a two-word sentence at the end of a post that repeats the contrasting view, or interwoven within a condescending statement that might incite someone, but certainly does not invite them to a dialogue.  This is a monologue.
  3. “White men.”  Racial and gender slurs are never civil.  As a “white man” myself, you may be surprised to hear that I understand why people use this phrase.  Believe it or not, there are white men who treat other white men in precisely the ways that earn them the negative stereotype.   But it is a stereotype.  I know many, wonderful, kind, compassionate, sacrificial white men, and the all-encompassing slur simply does not serve to effect change.
  4. “God says _________.”  We have become far too careless in our citations of the Divine.  Too often this phrase either introduces a misquoted Scripture or a verse out of context.  When one is truly respectful of God, one must be extremely careful about putting words into a Holy mouth.  Surely a loving God approaches discourse with civility, and with intent to compel, not repel.
  5. “You’re an idiot.”  Most everyone has moments when they feel that another’s opinions are “idiotic,” especially when no attempt is made to understand the social construction that has led to the differing points of view.  And not only is this phrasing politically incorrect and offensive, the layers of implications about the one posting it are many.  Why engage with someone if you believe them to be of deficient mental capacity and reasoning?  On the other hand, if you truly are of superior intellect, isn’t it your social and moral responsibility to offer insights that others might not have, rather than to crudely demean them through the perhaps oldest insult in the book—right after something about “Yo’ mama?”

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3 Responses to Things that ‘incite but don’t invite’ (5 phrases to avoid when in pursuit of civil discourse)

  1. Sharon
    December 23, 2012 at 8:46 am

    This is so appropriate and we need to pay more attention to how we say things. Recently I was called upon to make peace between 2 family members because of insensitive things posted on facebook just prior to the election. Thank God they calmed down and listened . . . Keep on making us think about how we communicate our beliefs.

    • December 23, 2012 at 8:58 am

      Thanks for this, Sharon. I believe it really is a problem in today’s society. People say E-things they would never say in person. I am working on various ways to encourage E-tiquette. = ) Bless you.

  2. Thomas Slack
    December 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Again Nathanial thanks for teaching the important ingedients that go into any discourse that is entended to be fruitful and or uplifting and or beneficial for the other party. I end to listen poor;ly and talk aimlessly so nop will try to be more constructive and thoughtful before i open mouth and insert foot. I lost the other blog response you sent thanks for the response.

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Nathaniel is CEO of AidChild.org. He holds a Master's Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University where he was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and winner of the 2010 Harvard HDP Marshal Award. He also holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego where he was the Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership, and a Cordes Fellow at Opportunity Collaboration. Nathaniel is author of "We Are Not Mahogany: Three stories about the male African life." Prior to his move to Uganda in 2000, Nathaniel was Deputy Director of the Office of the Governor of Arizona, and Director of Education at Leadership, Inc.

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