A Civility Pause

When couples fight, they are so physiologically stressed — increased heart rate, cortisol in the bloodstream, perspiring, etc. — that it is impossible for them to have a rational discussion. With one couple, we intentionally stopped their argument about a recurring issue by saying we needed to adjust some of our equipment. We asked them to read magazines for 30 minutes before resuming the conversation. When they did so, their bodies had physiologically calmed down, which allowed them to communicate rationally and respectfully. We now teach that method to couples — if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed during a fight, take a break and come back to it later, even if that means sleeping on it. (more)

Imagine you are hosting a family holiday gathering, and two guests get into a heated discussion. They raise their voices, sound emotional, and their facial expressions seem wild and out of control. They stand up, gesticulate wildly, point their fingers in each other’s faces, and seem like they might start to throw things or hit each other. Unless they are arguing on an urgent matter about which big decisions must be made immediately, as a responsible host you will probably see it as your duty to try to break them up. Get them to stop for now, split apart, and restart the conversation later when they are more calm, rational, and in control. If you were a participant in this heated discussion, you might also see it as your duty to break away.

Perhaps we should try the same with public conversations. When they degenerate from reasoned polite thoughtful engagement into heated emotional name-calling and shot-taking, then unless big decisions must be made soon, maybe at least one side should break it off, and wait to resume after emotions have cooled down. (The smaller-in-number and less-emotional side is better positioned to initiate this.) Most who joined the previous ruckus just to be part of a loud “in fashion” fight may not want to join a new polite calm discussion a bit later when the topic is no longer in fashion.

I decided to try this strategy regarding the heated discussion that grew out of my April 26 tweet on “sex redistribution.” I was plausibly partly complicit in causing the heat by posting right after a violent attack. So within a week I stopped posting on this topic, and I’ve waited two months from that first date to broach the topic again. Maybe if those interested in reasoned debate engage now in a calm discussion, those seeking loud fights, now distracted with other loud fights, will stay so distracted. I’ve heard informally that some had thoughtful analytic comments on the topic, but were put off from posting them previously by the tone of the prior debate; I’m hoping some such folks will speak up now.

Maybe they won’t. But I think it worth a try. So my next two posts will return to that topic.

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