Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

When We Teach Rhetoric, We Teach Values: A Writing Curriculum to Teach Civil Discourse

“Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures of communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of the space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can learn to speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear a commodious language.”              


                                                                                              Jim Corder – “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love”

Background and Rationale for the Curriculum

Whenever I discuss rhetoric with fellow teachers, I notice many of them hold a definition of rhetoric that emphasizes the instrumental, that values a rhetor’s ability to persuade over their ability to illuminate, clarify, or listen.  I know this to be true because when I ask them what they think of the rhetoric on cable news, many of them reply that it is incredibly successful – “just look at how many people are persuaded by their methods.”

When we teach our students rhetoric in the English or Humanities classroom, we ought to serve them better.  We ought to teach them to value complexity and subtlety over the brute force of a well delivered message.  We ought to teach them to value the process of communicating and reasoning over the certainty of their convictions.  We ought to teach them to value and love the other first, and to use language in a way that makes space for those they disagree with. 

The world of psychology has much to offer the world of writing instruction.  Jim Corder and other rhetoricians have relied on the work of psychologist Carl Rogers to teach students to find common ground within polarizing issues for over forty years now.  Today, teachers of writing, communication, and rhetoric can look to current work in moral psychology to derive many of the same insights.  In his Ted Talk “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a moral matrix to describe how we fail to make space for the other in our reasoning and communication:

“Step out of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, at least, has some reasons — even if you disagree with them — everybody has some reasons for what they’re doing. Step out.  And if you do that, that’s the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition.”                       

In basic terms, this metaphor of the matrix implies that while we believe our judgments and perceptions always match reality, they often do not.   This insight offers a way to develop a new vision of rhetoric in our own writing classes.  If we can develop writing assignments to help students realize that they live in a matrix of their own beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions, and if we can teach them to develop moral humility in their communication, the way is cleared for them to engage in discourse and reasoning that is both more civil and critical.  Here is one curriculum designed to achieve these goals.

Opening Essay – In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

In the essay In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, students answer essay prompts that put them in conversation with Haidt’s “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.”  The questions in the assignment ask them to apply frameworks or lenses from moral psychology to their own experiences.  This not only models how much of academic and critical thinking works (applying theoretical frameworks to real life issues) but encourages them to investigate some of their own unexamined values and assumptions about themselves and others.  The concept of the Moral Matrix also provides a theme for the course, and sets up the four part I-Controversy research paper in which students will be asked to step outside of their own moral matrices.

Research Paper Sequence: The I-Controversy Paper (4 Parts)

The I-Controversy Paper assignment inherits its title from the I-Search paper that is often taught in writing classes.  The ‘I’ borrowed from the I-Search connotes that this is a process assignment that embeds student interest and reflection.   In order to encourage students to confront and open to spaces of difference and disagreement, the I-Controversy asks students to choose a specific yes/no controversial statement or question.  This question then serves as the foundation for all 4 parts or essays.    

Part 1 of the I-Controversy Paper

In part 1 of the paper, students write about the experiences and people that have shaped their perspective on their controversy.  Many students are first inclined to write their opinions on the issue, and I encourage them in the writing process to focus more on what shaped those opinions rather than on the opinions themselves.  Like the essay In Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, this encourages students to look at the sources of their beliefs rather than their beliefs themselves, opening the way for reflection and critical thinking.

Parts 2 and 3 of the I-Controversy

In parts 2 and 3, students literally step outside of the moral matrix, writing in the third person and reporting the best arguments from first the pro and then the con side of their controversy.  By writing in a voice that represents the pro and con side, students can’t help but make space for voices on both sides of the controversy. 

Part 4 of the I-Controversy

In part 4, students get to choose from a series of reflection questions designed to encourage them to demonstrate the civil and critical thinking the developed on their journey outside the matrix.  After voicing the arguments for each side, almost all students report having a better understanding of the other side, and some students even find that they have changed their mind on their issue.  Still others focus on articulating something deeper about the nature of their controversy, exploring the differences in the values of both sides or analyzing what makes the issue complex enough to warrant it being a controversy in the first place. 

Final Thought

All of these moves offer students space to consider the other and thoughtfully represent their issue.  This is what rhetoric ought to be and can be if we see it as an expression of human value rather than an instrument or means to an end.

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Overcoming The Psychological Barriers to Combining Realism with Idealism

I was recently forwarded this thoughtful article by Peter Wehner, from Commentary Magazine, that talks about the need for people to appreciate the importance of idealism in striving for policy goals as well as the realism of compromise with others who also have valid parts of the truth.  From the article:

Politics is an inherently messy business. Moreover, the American founders–who developed the concepts of checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the rest–wanted politics to be messy. …

Too often these days, zealous people who are in a hurry don’t appreciate that the process and methods of politics–the “messy,” muddling through side of politics–is a moral achievement of sorts. But this, too, is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that justice is often advanced by people who are seized with a moral vision. They don’t much care about the prosaic side of governing; they simply want society to be better, more decent, and more respectful of human dignity. So yes, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it’s also the case that politics requires us to strive for certain (unattainable) ideals….

What happens all too often in our politics is that people who are drawn to one tend to look with disdain on those who are drawn to the other. What we need, I think, is greater recognition that both are necessary, that each one alone is insufficient. Visionaries have to find a way to give their vision concrete expression, which requires deal-making, compromise, and accepting something less than the ideal. Legislators need to govern with some commitment to philosophical and moral ideals; otherwise, they’re just passing laws and cutting deals for their own sake.

Unfortunately, moral conviction is often negatively correlated with appreciating the need for compromise.  How then can we combine realism with idealism?  We here at CivilPolitics are actively supporting research to help understand how to remove these barriers to groups coming together despite moral disagreements and welcome contributions from academics who have good ideas.  Some ideas that have support in the research include improving the personal relationships between groups and introducing super-ordinate goals where moral agreement can occur.  In future months, we’ll be highlighting other recommendations along these lines to help combine realism with idealism.

- Ravi Iyer




Read Ahead comments on Hollande’s Political Strategy for BBC World

Earlier today, I appeared on BBC World’s Business Edition to comment on Francois Hollande’s efforts to unite union and business interests in working to improve the lagging French economy.  I provided the same advice that I often do to groups that are looking to leverage the more robust findings from social science in conflict resolution, specifically that rational arguments only get you so far and that real progress is often made when our emotions are pushing us toward progress, as opposed to working against us.  Accordingly, it often is better to try to get the relationships working first, in the hopes that that opens minds for agreement on factual issues.  As well, it is often helpful to emphasize super-ordinate goals, such as improving the economy as a whole in this case, as opposed to competitive goals such as hiring mandates.  Lastly, hopefully Hollande, as a socialist who is fighting for business interests, can help muddy the group boundaries that can make conflicts more intractable, providing an example of someone who is indeed focused on shared goals.

Below is the segment, and my appearance is about 2 minutes into the video.

- Ravi Iyer

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When Morality Threatens Civility

Politics is fundamentally a group phenomenon that should be examined in relation to person’s identification with a particular group label (see Allport, 1954). When a person identifies as a “conservative” or “liberal” it means that he or she not only assumes a particular set of political positions but also identifies with other partisans as well as the shared sense of reality implied therein (Devine, 2014; see also Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin, 2008). To define oneself in this way often implies the identification of opponents, rivals or even enemies (cf. Edelman, 1988) that, at increasing levels, becomes a means of further clarifying what it means to be a “conservative” or a “liberal.”

“Civility,” which is the concern of this group, should therefore be examined as an intergroup, rather than interpersonal matter. What, then, does research on intergroup relations have to say about increasing civility among political partisans? I would argue that the greatest threat to political civility within a stable democracy is the “moralizing” of political discourse as it pertains to political groups. Namely, it is one thing to view your political opponent as misguided or simply wrong; it is another thing entirely to view him/her and the group that he/she represents as immoral, transgressive, or just plain evil. When placed in the latter realm, political discourse becomes decidedly less civil as the concept of “loyal opposition” becomes not only oxymoronic, but tantamount to treason.

When Morality Threatens Civility

Why must we as social scientists, practitioners, and scholars be wary when political discourse becomes moralized? The simple answer is that morality is powerful. The capacity for moral judgment and moral action may be encoded into our very fiber as a species and may have been the building blocks upon which human civilization was founded (Haidt, 2007, 2012; Greene, 2013). Putting aside the ontology of human morality, a much more parsimonious reason, at least for my purposes, for why morality is powerful is that people tend to view moral values as being objectively true (Goodwin & Darley, 2008). That is, a moral statement (e.g., “It is wrong to kill.”) is perceived to be more like an empirically verifiable fact (e.g., “The Earth revolves around the Sun.”) and less like a statement of social convention (e.g., “An appropriate tip for your server is 15 to 20 percent of the bill.”).

And there’s the rub, so to speak. A person’s morality is rooted in beliefs that are perceived to be as true as the Earth revolves around the Sun and which also imply a proscriptive element: not only is it wrong to kill, but one ought not to kill. A person’s moral worldview not only describes social reality but also guides future behavior as well as how future behavior is to be evaluated. One only needs to consult the work of Linda Skitka on moral conviction (see Skitka, 2010) or Jeremy Ginges’ work on sacred values (e.g., Atran & Ginges, 2012; Ginges & Atran, 2011) to see how these aspects of morality function in politics. What their work demonstrates is that we often judge the actions of others in relation to whether they reflect or confirm our moral values, even if violates considerations of procedural justice (Skitka & Houston, 2001) or our own utilitarian benefit (Ginges & Atran, 2011).

The “moralizing” of intergroup relations is often reflected in the attribution of moral or immoral qualities to other groups. I am currently examining the consequences of this process as part of my dissertation. In my preliminary findings (see Pilecki et al., 2013), I have found that when people perceive that members of another group (e.g., liberals, conservatives, feminists, evangelicals, etc.) as being typically less moral than most other people they are more likely to view violence or acts of political repression towards that group as being appropriate. These findings reinforce previous empirical and theoretical work by Susan Opotow (1990, 1993, 1994) and others (e.g., Bar-Tal, 1990) on the “scope of justice,” which refers to the distinction that people make between those considered worthy of moral treatment and those considered unworthy of moral treatment. When a social group is imbued with immoral qualities by political leaders, pundits, or other “entrepreneurs of identity” (Reicher & Hopkins, 2001) that group is effectively set apart from others and, in effect, becomes a legitimate and morally justifiable target of harm rather than civil discussion.

When people moralize intergroup relations they limit the potential for civil discourse to emerge as they frame political issues within the realm of sacred values, thereby making trade-offs and compromises less likely (Tetlock, 2003; Tetlock, Kristel, Elson, Green & Lerner, 2000). The words and labels we use to describe the social groups with which we identify and those that we oppose shape how we think about us, them and how we relate to one another (see Hammack & Pilecki, 2012). In other words, language matters and it is therefore incumbent for social scientists and practitioners to hold political leaders, media figures and other influential people accountable for their use of moralizing rhetoric to mobilize support, gain more viewers, and/or delegitimize criticism.

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.