Toxic Talk

Speech is civil when people talk in ways that are tailored to bring about constructive mutual exchange of ideas.
Incivility is significant deviation from this ideal.
Incivility is significant deviation from this ideal. Amazon

Why have we moved so far apart and become so antagonistic? These cultural phenomena are massively complex. No single explanation can do justice to all of the many influences that push opponents apart. Still, we can learn a lot by focusing on one factor, which is often overlooked.

Here it is: Instead of listening to and trying to understand our opponents, we interrupt, caricature, abuse, and joke about them and their views. This toxic way of talking exemplifies the aspect of polarisation that I labeled “incivility”.

Can we be civil, please?

Like “polarisation,” the term “civility” is used in several different ways. Moreover, civility and incivility are in the eye of the beholder. One person’s spirited criticism is another person’s incivility. Civility also comes in degrees. Some words and actions are more or less civil than others.

Despite these complications, civility can be understood as a vague ideal that we can approach more or less closely. Incivility is significant deviation from this ideal.

Speech is civil when people talk in ways that are tailored to bring about constructive mutual exchange of ideas. An extreme model of civility is suggested by Anatol Rapoport, a mathematical psychologist who was famous for his insights into social interactions:

You should attempt to express your target position so clearly, vividly,

and fairly that your target says, “Thanks. I wish I had thought of

putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything that you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or


How many times have you heard or participated in a conversation that obeys these rules? These rules have gone out of fashion recently, if they were ever obeyed. Luckily, we do not need to go so far in order to maintain minimal civility.

We can be civil to the degree that we approach this ideal.

That’s not all there is to civility, of course.

Timing is also important.

While you are explaining your view to me, if I interrupt and prevent you from finishing what you were saying, then it won’t help much if I express your position clearly, vividly, and fairly. You wanted to express it yourself.

Interruption is a paradigm of incivility because it sends the signal that I do not want to listen to you or at least that what you say is less valuable than what I say.

Civility, thus, requires the virtue of patience while we wait for our audiences as they take time to speak their minds. It also requires forgiveness when others refuse to concede our best points.

None of this is easy, but we have a choice. We can express civility by following or at least approaching the Rapoport Rules, by speaking and listening at the right times without interrupting, and by cultivating patience and forgiveness.

Or we can practice incivility by interrupting, insulting, and abusing our opponents. Your style is up to you.

Who doesn’t like a good caricature?

Instead of civilly asking why people adopt their positions, today we tend to assume that we already know their reasons.

Of course, the reasons that we ascribe to them are rarely their real reasons, and they are rarely the best reasons for their views. Instead, we too often try to beat opponents by putting them in a bad light.

Consider financial inequality: Poor people accuse the wealthy of greed and demand higher taxes. Rich people accuse poor people of laziness and see taxes as theft by government or, worse, communism.

Each side claims to understand the other, but only because they both think that their opponents are out for shortsighted selfish gain. Poor people ask:

What can a super-wealthy person do with an extra billion dollars? Don’t they see that the whole country needs extra tax revenue?

But then the wealthy respond: Don’t they see that I worked hard for my money? Don’t they realize that higher taxes will hurt the entire economy, especially the poor?

As long as neither side understands the other, they will continue to see their opponents as stupid, misinformed, shortsighted, and selfish.

That will make cooperation difficult or impossible. Such caricatures are harmful.

Excerpt From: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

“Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.”

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