Four things experts taught us about civility in a divided era

By Alex Samuels
© 2018 The Texas Tribune

"> C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, (left) protests the SXSW Festival's no gun policy in 2016. A local Austin woman (right), who declined to give her name because she was concerned she would be harassed by gun rights activists,…

Our Facebook community, This Is Your Texas, spent July discussing civility. Our discussion started with how to bridge the divide between lawmakers on opposing sides of the aisle. Then we analyzed how technology and social media have changed the way we talk with one another. Finally, we ended with tips for how we can motivate, empower and educate people so they feel able to get involved in their communities and governments.

To this end, we turned to several journalists and advocates to get their insight on how to maintain civility in a heated political time.

Here are four key takeaways:

More informers, fewer persuaders

When engaging with someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum, it can be easy for the conversation to devolve. One or both parties might shy away from listening and instead try to convince the other person to see another point of view.

Jay Jennings, a post-doctoral research fellow for the University of Texas at Austin’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, told members of the Tribune’s Facebook community to try to avoid this.

His comment came after a member of the group posed the question: When we engage in early-stage political conversations, do you find we better hit the mark when we aim to inform or when we aim to persuade?

“We need more informers and less persuaders out there,” Jennings said in response. “Someone who is very informed and has a strong opinion on the matter is probably not going to be persuadable — at least not in the short term. That doesn’t mean we can’t have conversations with those people, but it does mean we should go in with appropriate expectations.”

He added, however, that persuasion can be effective — depending on your audience. For instance, if the person you’re engaging with hasn’t formed an opinion on an issue, persuasion techniques will be more effective.

“Don’t fight the trolls.”

Just because two people are talking without raising their voices, it doesn’t mean the words being exchanged are sound.

During an “ask me anything” in the Facebook group last month, one member asked Robert Quigley, a professor and innovation director at the UT-Austin School of Journalism, and Omar Gallaga, a technology culture writer for the Austin American-Statesman, how to respond to someone communicating dehumanizing beliefs — even if they are doing it civilly.

The response: Kill them with kindness.

“People are often disarmed when you do that. Taking the high road usually works,” Quigley said. “Some people are just looking to start a fight. I tell my students: Don't fight trolls.”

“Be fair, be kind, be factual.”

Improving discourse can be hard, our experts noted — especially in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

Susan Curtis Gaston, a member of the group, pointed this out last month. “I think it’s a worthy effort to improve our discourse but how?,” she asked both Quigley and Gallaga. “Social media has provided a platform for dispersal of snarky, crude, fabricated stories and comments oftentimes anonymously. … How do you fight that? Some people will literally believe anything about ‘the other side’ if it conforms to their bias.”

Quigley began by offering a few tips on how to encourage online civility. The first, he said, is to encourage media literacy. Specifically, talking to your kids about how they can know whether something is “fake news” and push our public schools to include media literacy in their curriculums.

His second bit of advice? Practice what you preach. Only share news articles online that you know to be true. Not just ones you want to be true, he said.

Gallaga then told our readers that it starts with them: “Be fair, be kind, be factual,” he said.

“I hate to write people off, but if you spend all your time and energy trying to convince the inconvincible you are not going to have time to serve the people who really need you,” he added.

“Decide early what your line is for appropriate and inappropriate and stick to it.”

If you’re in a conversation with someone who refuses to be civil, what do you do?

Our experts recommend learning what your boundaries are early on — and sticking to them. Also, don’t be afraid to ask a second opinion on what constitutes crossing the line.

“Be fair but don't suffer fools who are just there to create drama. You will have a better environment if people feel there is some order and that they're not going to be shouted down by trolls and bad players,” Gallaga said.

 

© 2018 The Texas Tribune