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It’s Complicated – Civil Discourse

 June 20, 2024

How do we promote civil discourse in our contentious society? One way is by recognizing that it’s complicated – civil discourse that is.

One of the Presentations I attended at the Festival of Faith and Writing was a presentation by Marilyn McEntyre, Writing Through a Fog of Fear: Finding Life-Giving Words in an Alarming Time. “In a year of partisan conflict, when global challenges seem overwhelming, finding life-giving words is difficult. Many contend with deep fears, and speaking out can be costly. It’s a time to be ‘wise as serpents.’ In this session, McEntyre explores how to write into the moment with clarity and hope,” the presentation description read. Apparently, the topic spoke to many attendees as the room was packed and had people sitting on the floor to hear her words.

As part of her talk, McEntyre gave us a list of twelve strategies to promote civil discourse. My favorite – Number five, Insist on Complexity. In other words, it’s complicated.

Cognitive Misers

In the General Psychology course I taught for ten years, I was introduced to this term in regard to the brain – cognitive miser. In other words, the brain is lazy. We don’t want to work harder than we have to. That’s why we categorize people, putting them into boxes where we can label them and not have to work at understanding them. It’s easier to dismiss people by putting them into groups rather than deal with each person as an individual.

There is a level at which this works. I know my brain only has so much “bandwidth” as a friend likes to say. There is only so much I can deal with at any point in time. So the more I can organize people in a way that makes sense to me, the less energy they require, leaving me bandwidth for other matters. This can be an effective way to deal with problems, but not with people. People are more than problems to be dealt with.

This explains why racism is so prevalent in societies. We naturally think of some people as being part of our group, the “in-group”, and others outside our group, the “out-group.” Those in the out-group are less handsome, intelligent, kind, generous, and all around less worthwhile than those in the in-group. It takes effort to break out of this mindset, something we are loath to do because our brains are cognitive misers.

Simplicity versus Simplistic

Seeking complexity instead of simplicity reminds us that it’s more complicated than yes or no, this or that, Democrat versus Republican. However, the brain is a cognitive miser. It wants to lump people of different belief systems, ethnic, or economic backgrounds into one clump and dismiss them.

Over my life I have learned to value simplicity. I have found that often the simplest answer can be the best answer. This is especially helpful since I have a tendency to overthink everything. But there is a difference between simplicity and simplistic. The tendency to lump people into one category rather than recognize the wonderful diversity across humanity is simplistic and lazy.

This tendency to be simplistic contributes to the uncivil discourse that is rampant across our society. We don’t want to take the time to look at issues from all sides, consider different options and opinions. We don’t want to deal with the complications of listening to each other with an open mind. It’s work to be open-minded, something the cognitive miser inside us resists doing.

It’s Complicated – Civil Discourse

At times I’ve listened to hearings in our government where individuals are brought before the House of Representatives to answer questions. As I listened, I heard representatives insisting on yes or no answers as if lawyers at a trial. They seemed more interested in giving speeches spouting their own beliefs than hearing anything this person had to say. My question was why did they even bring this person in? Their minds were already made up. How sad. They had no interest in uncovering the truth.

Yes, there are some times when it is a simple matter of right or wrong, but the vast majority of the time we are dealing with shades of grey.

If we are truly interested in promoting civil discourse, we need to be willing to state that it is complicated. Both sides have to be willing to listen to each other, recognizing that when you are dealing with people, it’s complicated. It isn’t a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it’s maybe, or it’s complicated. Sometimes just admitting that it isn’t a simple matter of black or white, right or wrong, is the start to civil discourse.

What can you do today to promote civil discourse? Are you able to recognize when your brain is in cognitive miser mode?


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