CP Editorial: Civility during controversy

IMHO. Most of us are familiar with the acronym for “In My Humble Opinion,” unfortunately much of the time opinions are not expressed with humility.

College places students in an environment with a diversity of experiences and opinions. This allows for personal growth but could also lead to conflicts as opinions about the world and how it should be run clash. These disagreements can be an opportunity to defend one’s own views, while also broadening one’s view of the world. However, these discussions can only be beneficial if the conversations remain civil in nature.

Civility is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. When I advocate for civility amidst controversy, I am speaking of having respectful debates. I am not arguing for the minority voices or any distasteful opinions to be silenced in the name of maintaining a “pleasant” atmosphere. Beginning to silence certain opinions opens the door to further constraints upon free speech, which should be avoided. In addition, controversy is not inherently harmful. There can be a passionate disagreement between two people that can still be conducted in a reasonable manner.

John Ward smoothly articulates this idea in his article entitled, “Arguments and Argumentation: Is it possible for two people to argue in a civil manner?” Ward asserts that not only is it possible for two people to disagree in a polite manner, but being able to do so is in fact a distinctive feature of intelligent people. One key part of arguing civilly is the ability to see controversy not as a conflict between people, but rather a conflict between ideas.

The central tenets of formulating an argument involve using the methods of persuasion as defined by Aristotle, namely logos, ethos and pathos. Logos refers to the internal consistency or logic of the claim, ethos refers to the credibility of the speaker, and pathos refers to an appeal to the audience’s sympathies. The strongest arguments often make use of all three.

When having a discussion about something controversial, it is of high importance to remain open-minded. This is the part where many people falter. While I may not be able to agree with all sides on controversial topics, I believe that it is important to be able to take a step back and see where one’s opponent is coming from, specifically what led them to hold the views that they do. In doing that, you not only expand your own understanding of the world, but may also be able to find possible areas of similarity or compromise.

In the face of strong disagreement, it is easy to go with the knee jerk reaction and argue your points while refusing to listen to your opponent. However, that practice merely allows groups to become steadily more polarized in their own views and blind to the opposition’s points, some of which may have merit. While passion is a valuable character trait to have, it becomes damaging when it overshadows the ability to be open-minded.

Controversy can be an opportunity for personal growth, but only if civility is maintained on both sides.