Civil Discourse is our “Commons”

Did you ever have that terrific feeling when you pick up an article that makes brilliantly, the case you have been making poorly for years? I just had that feeling. How I missed “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (in The Atlantic, September 2015) I have no idea.

But I did. And as a result I have been struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to make the case that our “sensitivity jihad”—I’m trying not to overuse “crusade”—is costing us more than we know.

I see now that I have been picking the issue up by the wrong handle. I have been focusing on intentional abuses of the process. We start having a conversation and it isn’t going well for you for some reason, so you choose a word I have used as “offensive.” It’s an easy claim to make. I have no way of knowing whether you are offended. It seems a simple calculation that if you are offended, then the word I used must have been “offensive.” But now the subject has been changed and I am now engaged in protecting my own character instead of talking about the issue.

Then I ran across the article by Lukianoff and Haidt. Besides offering a real buffet of horrific examples (microaggressions, trigger warnings) they pay some attention to what this new fetish is costing us. Of course, the cost is general; that means it is costing the abusers of the system just as it is costing the rest of us.

commons 1And once I got that far, I saw that it was the old familiar Tragedy of the Commons and the rest of this essay is an attempt to play our the metaphor. As first formulated, it is about cows. There is a common grazing area which is big enough to sustain grazing by so many cows; not more. But the arithmetic underlying this arrangement is seductive. If Farmer A adds just one more cow to the commons, he uses only a small fraction of the grazing area and he keeps all the profit that extra cow brings for himself. Pretty good deal.

It presupposes, however, that Farmer A is the only cheater, which is not a likely prospect for the long term, especially since Farmer A has set such an enticing example. So other farmers begin to slip an extra cow onto the commons. They overgraze the commons until the grass is gone—it is gone for the cows of the cheaters and also for the cows of the righteous farmers who are grazing only their allotted number of cows—and everyone goes through a period of very hard times.

Once I saw that “civil discourse” was our commons and the encouragement of “microaggressions” was the extra grazing, I experienced a moment of clarity. I might have said, “Woohoo!” in the manner of Walter Matthau playing Albert Einstein in Fred Schepisi’s movie, I. Q.

So what does that analogy help us to see more clearly? If the free and frank exchange of views is what is valuable in the commons, then the more constraints there are on that exchange, the less free and the less frank it will be. “Sensitivity challenges” are a tax on every exchange. They not only make exchanges more onerous, but also keep people away from topics that really need to be addressed. This is, without question, the case for the “conversation about race” that President Obama keeps saying we ought to have.

It is easy, I think, for anyone with a sensitivity or a favorite grievance to claim to be offended. [1] “It’s just this one issue,” she thinks, “They can handle it.”  It’s just racism or sexism or ageism or size-ism. Just that one thing. But that is what every farmer thinks who grazes an extra cow on the commons and says, “Hey, it’s only one cow.”

And the amount of additional grazing really is just one cow. But that one cow is a challenge to the agreement among all the farmers not to add just one cow. It might be worth extending the metaphor so that it is the common trust that is being grazed on and when it is overgrazed too badly, it is destroyed. When the trust is destroyed, it is only a matter of time until the grass is destroyed as well. Maybe “grazing on (abusing) the trust” and “grazing on the grass” is one too many kinds of grazing.

commons 5This point tends to be lost on an oversensitive member of the discussion because he thinks that racism is a really important issue. Crossing the line in talking about race is a serious offense. And this guy probably thinks that when someone else shows the sensitivity about sexism that he himself shows about racism, that he is being “oversensitive” or maybe even pretending to be offended to regain the initiative. I know that makes this “oversensitive to race issues” guy look stupid, but he isn’t using all his intelligence if he thinks that only one issue makes people angry.

What is lost on this guy is that as explosive as racist words are to him, they are not so explosive to everyone else. To someone else, sexist words may be the source of personal outrage. That is certainly the way you will feel if you think that “racism” is a real issue and “sexism” is a secondary and artificial issue. Let alone “ageism.” But the truth is, hard as it is to remember when you are in a discussion, that the words that I find offensive are different from the words that you find offensive. If we could get far enough away from it, we could all see the truth, which is that a cow is a cow. If it eats grass, it’s “a cow.”

So the argument that my extra cow is justified, but yours is not, meets a swift and justified end.

commons 2Furthermore, what I find very hard to remember when I am the one being insulted or demeaned is that we are all beneficiaries of the commons. If the commons represent a style of discussion, not a topic to be discussed, then every kind of discussion is taxed by oversensitivity. We don’t talk about supporting and sustaining families the way we might if the commons had not been so shrunk from overuse. We don’t talk about poverty and homelessness the way we might. We don’t talk about American imperialism the way we might, or the frightening over-expansion of executive power under President Obama.

And when we lose that commons, everyone loses. The people who would like only their particular sensitivities honored lose. The people who think that everyone’s sensitivities should be honored, lose. And, of course, we lose as well.

The War of the Roses

Here’s an example. Suppose we are having a discussion about movies and someone refers to The War of the Roses as “a black comedy.” The two black members of the discussion look at each other and try to decide whether to treat that term as racial taunt and the user of the term as a racist. I’d like to ask them not to. Here are several reasons.

1. The War of the Roses, Danny DeVito’s movie from 1989, is a daring and difficult movie. It needs to be discussed for any number of reasons. [2] But when the topic is changed to whether I am colluding in racism by referring to the movie as “a black comedy,” none of those things is going to be debated. It’s just me and my racism.

2. The discussion of this movie could very well lead to the discussion of other movies or of domestic discord or of the fragility of marriage. When the topic is changed to me and my racism, none of those things is going to happen.

3. I’m pretty sure that, as the conversation continues, I am going to find “insensitivities” in some area that means a lot to me. I look across the group to see whether another friend and I are going to choose to be frightfully offended about the dominance of straight actors in parts where gay actors would be every bit as good.

In short, I see the extra cow (the racism charge) you tried to graze on the commons and I can’t think why I shouldn’t add my cow (sexual preference). And do you have any idea how many extra cows there are available, should the other farmers see us grazing our extra cows on the commons?


How do we get the commons back? Well, remembering that trust is what sustains our common dialogue, we need a chance for the trust to be reestablished. On the original commons, all you have to do is stop grazing it for awhile and the grass grows back; that doesn’t work for trust. Regaining enough trust to sustain public discussion is more like climbing a ladder, rung by laborious rung, than it is like just letting the discussion lie fallow for a season.

commons 4My solution is taking one for the team. [3] We’re having our discussion about The War of the Roses and someone makes a remark that bears on the race, religion, national origin, or sexual preference of someone else. The potential victim notes it (no problem there) decides it is not the opening gun of a bombardment, and lets it pass without comment.

At the second reference, the potential victim says something like, “but laying aside the question of race, this scene is really about anger” In saying only that much, he has said that he noticed the possibility of race as a new topic and is choosing not to pursue it; he is offering a new, nonracial, interpretation.

This is a very good thing to do because it does not accuse anyone of anything. We need to stay away from that because “who are you calling a racist?!” is just as much a diversion as the original racist (possibly racist) remark. Both preclude continuing the discussion. It is also good because it serves notice to the other members who are waiting for an opportunity to pursue their own favorite grievances—an opportunity to graze their cows on the commons as well—that you did not take the opportunity when it was offered to you. So maybe they ought to hold back as well.

At the third reference—or the fifth or whatever [4]—the potential victim says something like, “We keep drifting into a racial (not racist) interpretation of this scene and all the assessments seem to be negative. I’m sure no one intends to turn the discussion in a racist direction, so let’s go back to the question of what this scene is for.” [5] Now it is true that the language “I’m sure no one intends….” is more honorary than descriptive. It usually means, “I am going to pretend that no one intends…” Still, it gives everyone the chance to back away slowly with their hands in plain sight and no charges have been made and the topic is still on track.

How does this re-grow the grass? People with other grievances either a) experience no break in the discussion and benefit from that or b) notice that the potential victim has handled his own grievance with restraint. He has taken one for the team and it may make them feel that they can afford to take one for the team as well when their turn comes.

Here’s what Lukianoff and Haidt say.

“Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds. But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.”

What I’ve called “redemption” is about “how to live in a world full of potential offenses.”

Before I end this, however, I think I should say that sometimes there are statements made that are so destructive that they are worth challenging, no matter what the cost to the commons. What I have been calling “the reestablishment of trust” is crucially important, but that doesn’t mean that the most vicious racism (or sexism, etc.) needs to be tolerated. That doesn’t regrow trust. It just segregates the group as people leave rather than submit to the assault.

Sometimes, you just have to say NO. It’s a kind of perimeter defense. It doesn’t regrow the grass. It doesn’t move you up the ladder by so much as a single rung. But it does stop new damage and that is worth doing.

[1] I’m not implying that they are not really offended, nor even that they should not be offended. I am saying only that when the bar of “offending others” or for being “insensitive” is set so low that many statements meet it, the space for free and frank discussions will have shrunk nearly to disappearing.
[2] One of them is Kathleen Turner’s destruction of Michael Douglas’s car with her monster truck. Is it reasonable to call that act “rape?”
[3] That’s my solution for a lot of things, actually, but being part of a team has to matter a lot to you for that to work and teams that good are in short supply.
[4] Some groups have a specific procedure for noting a possible impediment to the discussion and setting it aside for the moment, with the promise that they will return to it later should the participants still wish to. For a group like that, the explicit naming of the racial issue could be done in almost any round.
[5] red, orange, yellow, blue, and green according to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. And what’s more important to the security of our homeland than maintaining a commons for public discourse?

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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4 Responses to Civil Discourse is our “Commons”

  1. eric carlson says:

    Rebuilding “civil [civic?] discourse” as a commons isn’t going to be any easier when trust among Americans appears to be lower than at any time in the last 40 years. See Anna Swanson, To continue the analogy of the commons, what do you do if the basic problem is not just that the grass has been overgrazed, but that the quality of the soil (on which the grass depends) has been reduced?

    • hessd says:

      That’s a marvelous piece, Eric. I’ve been citing Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust, which makes this case, but this is a much more recent body of work and things are worse now than they were when Fukuyama wrote.

  2. This post is extremely well written. Great job!

    I get your whole point about the tragedy of the commons, but I see the issue as more personal.

    In today’s world, it’s like, “Anyone who disagrees with me could not possibly have a legitimate reason for that disagreement. In fact, the only reason anyone could possibly disagree with me is if they’re … evil! Yes. If you disagree with me about anything at all, ever, you are evil!”

    The problem is that no one anywhere in the world could possibly share your views about every possible subject. That means every other person on the planet is evil.

    At some point, we need to realize that people are people. They have experiences and knowledge that is different from our own. And that experience and knowledge leads to different beliefs. Sometimes, there are very valid disagreements.

    Sometimes, the views held can seem repugnant in the extreme.

    Until and unless we understand the reason for the view, I just don’t think we should say, “You’re evil!”

    • hessd says:

      I agree entirely. I’m glad you liked the essay. My hope is that people will see the system side of it, so that they see that everyone’s freedom is diminished when we are not allowed to say risky things.

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