5 Rules for Civil Discourse: EXPLAINED

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 10

How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

In today’s episode, it will be my pleasure to explain our five rules of civil discourse! You may ask, “How can we have strong-willed people from the political right and the political left, the religious, spiritual, atheists, and all kinds of people participate in meaningful open discussions?” These rules certainly help, and I’d go so far as to say that they are also pretty useful in online and other in-person conversation.

This program is brought to you by the members of the Free Thought Initiative.

We help those in need of an inclusive, supportive, and free-thinking community by hosting public discussions on moral philosophy, healthy living, and science, to improve the cohesion, health, and scientific literacy of our society.

Everyone is welcome, (regardless of personal religious belief, political leanings, etc.) to participate (in-person) in these open and civil discussions.

To find a Free Thought Forum meeting near you, to start your own local group, or to become a member and support this program through monthly donations – please visit freethoughtforum.org.

I can’t take credit for our Five Rules for Civil Discourse. They were developed by all of our founding members and took a little trial and error to get right. Before I jump into them, it is important to point out why our organization’s public discussions are held in the first place.

Each member of a freethought forum participates with an underlying goal, and that is for all participants to get closer to the actual truth, whatever it may be. Sometimes this is done through something like the Socratic Method, in which a participant may play devil’s advocate, and ask thought-provoking questions in order to see what responses the others might give. Sometimes this is done by throwing out an idea and seeing how quickly it is shot-down by a sound counter-argument. If needed, we may pause to contemplate a particularly difficult concept that has been proposed.

In these discussions, each person must be fearless. There can be no untouchable ideas. It takes thick skin to enter the unknown, but treasure awaits. No one may be “disqualified” by offering an odd comment. Even though we may be tempted, we never ban a sincere member or guest from the conversation. In a world in which fewer and fewer of us can find a place to talk about what is most important to us, this forum has been designed as a solution. In addition, if you want to step out of the bubble or echo-chamber in which you have lived, this is how it’s done. It isn’t comfortable, but it’s rewarding.

Each Free Thought Forum exists to promote healthy civil discussion and celebrate the free-exchange of ideas. We assert that one’s ability to voice their ideas and have them supported, contested, tested, and reviewed among peers (and in-person) is an indispensable tool in one’s honest search for the correct answers to life’s most important questions.

To ensure that all participants in a free thought forum have the opportunity to share their ideas while being treated respectfully, the following rules for civil discourse have been tested and developed. By participating in a weekly open discussion, all guests, members, and hosts agree to abide by the following:

1. Be Respectful of Each Other’s Time

If a designated host senses that you have taken more than 5 minutes to make a point, he/she will insist that someone else is given an opportunity to talk. Do not to interrupt or talk over someone else.

Believe it or not, this first rule actually covers most problems found in open discussions. When we are prodded to be aware of how much time we take to make a point, we think more about how we phrase our ideas and arguments. Simple and concise language emerges as a result. And don’t worry. Five minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you are speaking with a large group, it can feel like an eternity. Most often, participants will add one or two sentences, and then allow others to have their say.

2. Criticize Ideas, not People

No one comes to an open discussion to be personally attacked. If you believe that an idea deserves criticism, it is essential that you address the claims or opinions themselves. This also applies to groups of people. There is nothing wrong with criticizing what a group of people profess, as long as the people themselves are treated with respect. Phrases such as “I disagree,” “what makes you say that?” or “what do you think of the counter-argument?” are all useful in keeping the conversation positive and inclusive.

If there was ever a general rule for life, it’s this one. In our view, everyone ought to be valued first for their humanity, and everything else follows. If you are a human being, then you ought to be treated right, no matter what your ideology or stance is on various issues. Since your beliefs and convictions may change over time, we don’t consider ideas as permanent parts of your core identity. Therefore, beliefs and ideas are free game. Good ideas can take a beating. Bad ideas deserve to be beat. Criticize my ideas, I’ll criticize yours, and at the end of the day, we are both better for it.

3. Avoid Fallacious Argument or Unsubstantiated Declarations

Committing a logical fallacy or making bold claims without explaining the reasoning behind why you believe as you do can hinder productive thought and meaningful discussion.

We tried our best not to make this rule too wordy or confusing and I’m not convinced we are quite there. However, the core of the idea is what is important. Logical fallacies are ways that people can cheat and shortcut past rational thinking, and turns any good discussion into a dead end. A good example is the strawman fallacy. If two members are in a forum meeting and one says, “I think if an idea is a good one, it doesn’t matter who said it.” The other member would be committing the strawman fallacy if they said something like, “Well if you listen to psychopaths to find great ideas, then I can’t help you!” Basically, if you misrepresent someone’s argument to make it easier to attack, you are commenting a strawman fallacy.

Other common fallacies include “ad hominem,” “special pleading,” “appealing to emotion,” and the “slippery slope.” I’ll have to make a podcast episode about them some time.

Another common thing that hurts a discussion is when people make unsubstantiated declarations. Carl Sagan is famous for saying “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” In that vein, if you are going to come into a discussion and claim to be the voice of God, was born in Atlantis, or that you have discovered cold fusion in your basement, you should expect the other forum members to ask you to substantiate the claim. In other words, you will be asked to provide some kind of evidence or cohesive argument for your position. It isn’t that we don’t believe you, we just want everyone to follow the same rules for the sake of a productive meeting.

4. Be Open to Scrutiny and a Diversity of Opinion

The objective of each meeting is not for someone to “win” or to “convert” anyone else. A discussion is not a debate. Rather, it is to allow each participant’s idea to compete in an open marketplace of ideas under to its own merits.

People come to these meetings to have their ideas tested. As long as we all understand that, we’ll be fine. Almost all of my ideas sound brilliant in my mind – but that doesn’t me they are. A good friend is one who will let you know when a concept needs more time to cook. Put another way, if the other members of your forum didn’t care about you or the truth, then they would be indifferent to what you have to say. When someone contests an idea, it shows they care enough to say something about what you said. However, there are no “winners” or “losers” here. It isn’t the goal of the meeting to come to an agreement or for everyone to reach some conclusion. If everyone disagrees about some issue, that is totally fine. A diversity of opinion is a healthy thing, especially on issues in which the truth is not clear.

5. Recognize the Authority of the Host as Moderator

Your host (a trained volunteer) is much like a sports referee or a judge in a courtroom. In order to maintain civility and to promote productive dialogue, all participants agree to respectfully follow their Host’s facilitation and moderation.

The host is the person who will interrupt you to let you know that you have gone over your time. He/She is in charge of pointing out wrongful personal criticisms and directing the conversation away from individuals and back to ideas. They will point out fallacious argument or unsubstantiated declarations and ask the speaker to try to rephrase their point in a different way. If someone is not tolerating the opinions of another, the host is the one to step in and remind everyone why they are there.

It is important that this host servers as a moderator. In other words, it is important that they behave as if they are personally indifferent to the topic for as long as they are a host. As a neutral participant, their concern is only for the fair treatment of all involved, and that these five rules are followed.

That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!


Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative

Free Thought Forum