The Meaning of Civility

Guy M. Burgess

Heidi Burgess

Originally published in 1997,  Updated Dec. 2019


The increasingly controversial campaign for civility in public discourse reflects an understandable and widespread frustration with the deep partisan divide that has made constructive political debate almost impossible. There is a growing realization that our inability to effectively deal with a broad range of problems is largely attributable to the destructive ways in which the issues are being addressed. This raises a critically important question: What exactly do we mean by "civility"?


This post is part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


Clearly, civility has to mean something more that mere politeness. The effort to promote civility will have accomplished little if all it does is get people to say, "excuse me, please", while they (figuratively) stab you in the back. Civility also cannot mean "roll over and play dead." People need to be able to raise tough questions and present their cases when they feel their interests, need, rights, or values are being threatened. Also, civil society cannot avoid tough but important issues, simply because they are unpleasant to address.  We simply must find wise and equitable ways of addressing controversial issues like climate change, family disintegration, deficit spending, abortion, and the balance between discrimination and reverse discrimination. There must also be more to civility than a scrupulous adherence to the laws governing public-policy decision making. Clearly, there are numerous instances in which the parties to public-policy conflicts act in ways which are destructive and inappropriate, even though they are (and should continue to be) legal.  The overuse use of legitimate procedural and legal appeal processes as part of a "run out the clock" strategy of endless delay is but one example. 

In short, any reasonable definition of "civility" must recognize that the many differences which divide our increasingly diverse society will produce an endless series of confrontations over difficult moral, distributional, status, and identity issues. Often these issues will have an irreducible win-lose character and, hence, are not be amenable to win-win agreement. While continuing confrontation is inevitable, the enormous destructiveness which commonly accompanies these confrontations is not.

In our work at the Beyond Intractability Project, we have been focusing on promoting what we call "Constructive Conflict." This approach combines an understanding of conflict processes, dispute resolution, and advocacy strategies to help disputants better advance their interests. In addition to explaining why the politeness and mutual respect embodied in conventional definitions of "civility" is important, we also identify a number of other areas in which adversaries, decision makers, and those caught in the middle can work individually and collectively to increase the constructiveness of public debate. Examples of these areas include:

Separating People from the Problem

First, and most obviously, is a commitment to civility in the traditional and relatively narrow sense of the word. People need to recognize that other thoughtful and caring people have very different views on how best to address their community's many complex problems. Constructive debate needs to focus on solutions which are most likely to be successful, and not upon personal attacks leveled by adversaries against one another. This was summed up years ago by Roger Fisher, Bill Ury and Bruce Patton, authors of the New York Times best-seller Getting to Yes. They advised disputants to "separate the people from the problem," by being "soft" on the people, but "hard" on the problem. When this is not done, conflicts tend to escalate so much that key decisions are often made on the basis of the very personal desire to utterly defeat and disempower an enemy (rather than solve a problem in as mutually-beneficial a way as possible).

Utilize the Best Available Technical Facts

Many public policy disputes involve factual disagreements which are amenable to resolution through some type of fact-finding process. Failure to discern available facts substantially increases the probability that the situation will be so misunderstood that the solutions adopted will fail to achieve the desired results. Constructive civil debate, therefore, requires that the parties work together to resolve factual disagreements to the maximum extent possible.   There are, of course, limits to what science can tell us and some uncertainties and risks are unavoidable. In these cases, the parties need to be prepared to explain what risks they are willing to accept and why. It also helps if parties commit themselves to supporting corrective action, if it turns out the problems that they thought that could be avoided do, actually, arise.

Limit Interpersonal Misunderstandings

Often the adversaries proceed on the basis of very inaccurate (and usually unjustifiably evil) images of the interests, positions, and actions of others. Civility requires that contending parties make an honest and continuing effort to understand and respond to the views and reasoning of their opponents. We need to resist the temptation to focus only on information that makes us look good and makes the other side look bad—we need to honestly look at the other side's point of view.  And, of course, we all need to condemn the deliberate distortion of information and, especially, hate-mongering efforts designed to delegitimize and, potentially, dehumanize one's political opponents.

Use Fair Processes

Civility also requires that the public issues be addressed by a process that is fair in both appearance and fact. Public input needs to be honestly solicited and considered. Decisions also need to be made on the basis of substantive arguments. For example, advocates of the status quo should not be able to prevail by simply introducing endless procedural delays which prevent alternative proposals from being considered or acted upon.

Limit Escalation

The most destructive conflict dynamic, escalation, arises when accidental or intentional provocations beget greater counter-provocations in an ever-intensifying cycle that transforms a substantive debate initially characterized by honest problem solving into one in which mutual hatred becomes the primary motive. De-escalation and escalation avoidance strategies are needed to limit this problem.  Of particular concern are provocateurs who seek to drive the escalation spiral as part of an effort to delegitimize compromise and encourage everyone to see politics as a climactic battle between the forces of good and evil.  While this may be great for mobilizing the base, it makes it impossible to protect the common good.

Honor Legitimate Uses of Legal, Political, and Other Types of Power

Public policy disputes involve issues which people feel very strongly about. Given this, disputing parties can be expected to use all of the powers available to them in an attempt to prevail. In our political system, this means that people are entitled to use the legal and political system to advance their interests. We should respect this right and not attempt to require that the parties renounce their power options as a precondition for discussion.  That said, politics cannot be a winner-take-all game.  Winners must not be free to impose their worldview by violating the fundamental rights and freedoms of the losers.  Democracy must offer a livable future to everyone, regardless of who wins an election.

Separate Win/Win from Win/Lose Issues

Wherever possible, the parties should try to reframe the conflict in ways which transform win-lose confrontations into win-win opportunities. In cases where this is not possible, the parties need to recognize and accept the fact that political and legal institutions will repeatedly be called upon to make tough choices, and whenever possible should distribute the losses so that everyone wins some and loses some.  For example, increased border security might be accompanied by a fairer and more humane process for handling immigration.

Limit the Backlash Effect

While political, legal or other types of force may produce short term victory, they also tend to generate a powerful backlash. People hate to be forced to do things against their will and can be expected to launch a "counterattack" at the earliest opportunity. The best way to limit this "backlash effect" is for parties to take positions which can be justified on the basis of broadly acceptable principles of fairness which all members of society have an interest in supporting. While such justifications cannot be expected to convert all opponents, they can be expected to increase the parties' base of support by attracting some opponents, as well as a larger number of swing voters. This emphasis upon justification tends to produce more reasonable positions on both sides, while making it more difficult for contending parties to pursue purely selfish objectives.

Keep Trying to Persuade and Allow Yourself to be Persuaded

One crucial element of civility is recognition by conflicting parties that it is possible that they are wrong and that some of the policies advocated by their opponents may actually be better. This entails an obligation to seriously consider the persuasive arguments made by opponents and to carefully try to explain and justify one's own position to one's opponents and others.

More Persuasion, More Exchange, Less Force

The best ways to produce stable, long-term policy change is through persuasion in which parties are converted to some compromise point of view, or through exchange in which the parties fairly distribute gains and losses. This implies that the use of force should be minimized wherever possible and confined to use against those who would illegitimately use force in an attempt to selfishly impose their will on others.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi and Guy M. Burgess. "The Meaning of Civility." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: 2019<>.