As good Americans, we are required to invest ourselves in our democratic ideals by civic duty. One of these duties is that of civil discourse. Though we are called to it at least once a year at our town meetings, it rightly should go on every day.

But what does civil discourse mean? Let’s parse this phrase into the definitions of the two words, then stitch them back together as a descriptive sentence.

• Civil: 1: Of or relating to citizens, of or relating to the state or its citizenry; 2a: Civilized (civil society); 2b: Adequate in courtesy and politeness.

• Discourse: Verbal interchange of ideas; especially conversation.

Cobbling these two definitions together, a literal meaning could then be: Citizens adequate in courtesy and politeness in a verbal interchange of ideas. Or, civilized conversation.

Civil discourse is an art. It takes practice. It requires that we attempt to listen intently to absorb what is being discussed before jumping to conclusions. One of the precepts of civil discourse must be to assume that the other person is well intentioned and harbors no ill will or intent. Without this assumption, we are much more likely to let emotion rule the day. When our sense of outrage (emotion) is summoned, then our ability to listen and reason diminishes because emotions deal in judgment, but not necessarily in fact.

Too often in our discussions we quickly go from zero to invective, questioning the very morals of our neighbor, co-worker or elected officials without first-hand knowledge or firm proof of wrongdoing. Too often, it seems, we feel justified in questioning the very integrity of the other, and because we question the integrity of the other, it allows us to treat them disrespectfully or demonize them.

Demonization is the characterization of individuals, groups or political bodies as evil or subhuman for purposes of justifying and making plausible an attack, whether in the form of character assassination, legal action, circumscribing of political liberties or warfare.

It has no place in civil discourse.

Phil Poirier is a singer/songwriter who lives in Farmington.

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