Civic discourse, sometimes referred to as civil discourse, can be described as communication around matters of public concern. In this way it is the sum of its two parts: the adjective “civic” is broadly understood as relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs, and the noun “discourse” denotes written and spoken communications. As such, civic discourse includes but is certainly not limited to chats, discussions, speeches, letters, emails, Tweets, Facebook posts, and articles about politics, government, social issues, current events, and all other such topics that are considered to be in the public sphere and/or related to one's involvement in such communications. Civic discourse differs from other forms of discourse, such as philosophical or rhetorical discourse, in its commitment to serving the reader and the public good. Further, civic discourse differs from other civic activities, such as voting, campaigning, or volunteering, as well as from other discourse activities, such as debate or deliberation, in its quest to achieve deeper understanding. For these reasons, civic discourse is critically important for democratic governance of self and society, and for the development of sound public policy.
It is important to distinguish civic discourse from other types of discourse, particularly those belonging to the philosophical and rhetorical traditions. Perhaps the best distinction between philosophical discourse and civic discourse comes from John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding ( 1689 ), although he substitutes “civil” for “civic”:
First, by their civil use, I mean such a communication of thoughts and ideas by words, as may serve for upholding common conversation and commerce, about the ordinary affairs and conveniences of civil life, in the societies of men, one against another. Secondly, by the philosophical use of words, I mean such an use [sic] of them, as may serve to convey the precise notion of things, and to express, in general propositions, certain and undoubted truths, which the mind may rest upon, and be satisfied with, in its search after true knowledge ( 1996, 205, emphasis in original ).
Therefore, according to Locke, civic discourse is communication for the purpose of objectively enhancing understanding matters of shared or public concern, which differs from the purpose of philosophical discourse in its search for meaning in the physical world and the human experience. Still, it would be fair to argue that individuals find meaning through both forms.
Adding an extra layer of complexity to these already blurry distinctions, the civic engagement scholar Peter Levine ( 2007 ) defines civic discourse as a behavior that expresses a point of view with the ultimate purpose of influencing the state, although, as he points out, it is certainly possible to express one's views without want of shifting policy or law. Aristotle might have disagreed. For Aristotle such a description is rightfully reserved for rhetoric, which he defined as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” ( 2007, 7
To be sure, the public nature of civic discourse—its focus on disinterested descriptions of matters of shared or public concern—places it at odds with other forms of communication, be they philosophical (concerned primarily with making meaning) or rhetorical (concerned primarily with persuasion). Regardless of these differing purposes, many find the act of public expression to be of intrinsic value. In other words, simply discussing public matters, for the sake of such discussion, surely and certainly counts as civic discourse, as long as the primary focus remains understanding rather than a search for deeper meaning or the changing of hearts and minds.
If civic discourse as a distinct type of communication embodies the purpose of objectively enhancing understanding around matters of shared or public concern, then many activities may be said to qualify. Common examples might include conversing with family at the dinner table, submitting a letter to the editor of a newspaper, calling in to a television or radio talk show, sharing an article or even a meme through social media, emailing or calling a member of Congress, or chatting with a stranger while waiting in line at the post office. What matters in all of these examples is that the communication is concerned primarily with the common good, although persuasive devices are likely to emerge, whether intentionally or not.
Other types of communication, under certain circumstances, meet the qualifications of civic discourse but are more accurately labeled another way. Two prime examples are deliberation and debate. Deliberation, which focuses on improving collective decision making, usually around issues of public policy, emphasizes the right, opportunity, and capacity of anyone who is subject to a collective decision to participate or to have his or her representatives participate. As such, deliberation is inherently civic and ideally democratic. Debate has to do with persuasion and is therefore more rhetorical in nature. Nonetheless, like deliberation, debate plays an important role in the decision-making process, particularly in pluralistic societies in which diverse views and interests must be heard and accommodated. This would suggest that both deliberation and debate should assume a civil (that is, courteous) tone, but again, in terms of communicative purpose, the distinction from civic discourse is clear.
Civic discourse also stands as its own type of civic activity. To be sure, the menu of civic activities is long and, with the proliferation of new technologies, constantly growing. Civic discourse, however, stands separate from other civic activities—such as voting, petitioning, campaigning, volunteering, serving on juries, and paying taxes, among many others—in its quest to objectively enhance understanding rather than espouse a particular viewpoint, embrace a particular candidate, serve a particular community, or merely follow the law. Simply put, civic discourse is less about doing and more about knowing.
Civic discourse plays a primary role in facilitating the development and application of individuals' moral and political understandings. Individuals form opinions and assume positions in the context of social interactions, and this context informs the ways in which those opinions and positions are implemented, modified, and reconstructed ( Habermas 1993 ). The ability to engage in healthy and robust civic discourse, particularly with those whom individuals may disagree most, represents a critical civic capacity; it makes effective action possible, it fosters a greater sense of efficacy, and it encourages people to see themselves as civically engaged, which in turn tends to motivate them toward further civic and political engagement.
In a healthy democracy, individuals must feel capable and compelled to make strong cases, ensure that others understand their point of view, understand and evaluate the arguments of others, compromise without abandoning their convictions, and ultimately achieve consensus. To perform these functions, citizens need to feel safe in doing so; yet, increasingly, the prevailing “single-issue blare and declining civility of contemporary political discourse” ( Putnam 2000, 46 ), to which most have borne witness and that many have empirically documented, threatens that sense of safety. As Robert Putnam reports in Bowling Alone ( 2000 ), this decline in civility translates to a decline in generalized reciprocity—the principle by which individuals do things for others without expecting anything immediately in return (and perhaps without knowing the others), with the satisfaction of knowing that the favor will be returned or paid forward at some later point—something Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.” Well-educated democratic citizens understand that it is in their best self-interest to live in a society in which people freely help one another.
Others scholars have challenged Putnam's central claim of shrinking access to social capital and its accompanying declines in reciprocity and trust ( see Dalton 2006 and Zukin et al. 2006 ). Although it is true that the mass public is deserting traditional forms of political engagement, people are becoming increasingly active in a wide range of new forms of engagement that take advantage of innovative technologies and seek to challenge old-line power structures. Put another way, “Americans are changing their style of political action rather than dropping out from politics entirely” ( Dalton 2009, 55 ). Alongside this broadening view of citizenship is evidence of rising political tolerance, a key feature of enlightened democratic citizenship. Taken together, these trends point to an America that is better suited to solve some of the country's most pressing problems, and to do so in a civil manner.
In his 2001 book on social construction, Kenneth Gergen describes civil discourse as the language of objectivity. In this way, it stands apart from philosophical and rhetorical discourse, with their respective purposes of making meaning and persuasion. For Gergen, civil discourse requires modesty, respect for others, avoidance of excessive persuasion, impersonality of reporting, and truthful disclosure of individual experiences, which in many ways sets it apart from other civic activities such as campaigning or petitioning. It must also advance “without diminishing [the audience] in terms of moral worth” or calling its integrity into question ( 2001, 72 ). In the twenty-first-century political milieu, such descriptions read as an almost unattainable ideal—relics of a bygone era of civility, compromise, and goodwill.
Of course, that era never fully existed and likely never will. These characteristics of discourse are always partly present and partly absent to varying degrees. Nonetheless, civic discourse is important, and it is important that it be civil. It provides an avenue for civic empowerment, and it serves as a tool to convey information needed for wise public decision making by the citizenry and their representatives. As such, it is incumbent on educational institutions and government institutions as well as public and private organizations to foster civic discourse among people with conflicting values and ideas, which can lead to more civic engagement, better governance, and stronger policy.
SEE ALSO Civic Dispositions ; Civic Engagement ; Civic Skills ; Deliberative Democracy ; Governance ; Negotiation ; Persuasion ; Polarization ; Political Rhetoric .
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Emma K. Humphries
Bob Graham Center for Public Service University of Florida