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A Key To Civil Discussions: Don't Avoid Tough Topics, Build Relationships

While discussing controversial topics with people who disagree, avoiding those topics is not helping build a more civil discourse, according to Bill Keith.


When it comes to discussing politics, especially controversial topics, it can be difficult to leave a conversation without feeling the need to shout at the top of your lungs and become uncivil.

For many people, they feel that American discourse has lost the civility it is supposed to have.

Bill Keith is the co-author of the book, Beyond Civility: The Competing Obligations of Citizenship and a professor of rhetoric at UW-Milwaukee.

“A lot of people are concerned about civility now, they’re concerned about a loss of it, they’re concerned about recovering it, but why is it so important to people?” he asks.

Keith says that in the U.S. many issues are decided through public opinion and debate. From personal conversations to debates on the floor of the U.S. Senate, that discourse informs which policies become accepted into the mainstream and which are labeled as fringe.

Keith cites marriage equality as an issue that twenty years ago was difficult to discuss but now has become widely accepted.

“Are there still a minority of people who disagree? Of course. There’s always a minority of people who disagree but that doesn’t actually prevent us from moving forward. So that’s a case where the conversations, the arguments, the flow of discourse — mostly civil, sometimes a little bit less — did seem to make a positive change,” he says.

Credit Penn State University Press
Keith says civility is not just about having pleasant conversations but building relationships so that difficult conversations can be effective.

But those conversations can feel uncomfortable and challenging, something Keith says people shouldn’t shy away from. He says that creating rules like avoiding talking about difficult topics is not creating civil discourse, it just changes the subject to an easier topic.

Keith says that in order to create what he calls “strong civility” people need willing to wade into hard conversations and be OK with not fully agreeing. To create this discussion, he says people need to focus on building relationships.

“Civility is a kind of relationship with people, so if you have this relationship then you’re able to do this agreement with each other, you’re able to critique each other’s ideas and arguments without breaking the relationship,” he says.

For Keith, the end goal of civility is keeping the discussion alive.

“There is no point at which we get a perfect government, a perfect set of policies, or that we all agree. We should have disagreement, we should have people poking holes and making objections because that improves our chances at doing this kind of problem solving,” he says.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.