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We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America's Civic Tradition

Michael Austin

Top 10 Best Quotes

“The first thing people usually do when they decide to reduce the outrage in their lives is stop talking about politics altogether - or at least stop arguing with people who disagree with them. This is exactly the wrong response. We are supposed to argue about politics; we're just supposed to figure out how to do it without shouting at the top of our lungs and calling each other stupid or evil. Democracy calls us to have uncomfortable conversations. It asks us to listen to each other even when we would rather be listening to ourselves - or to people enough like us that we might as well be listening to ourselves. It is easier and more comfortable for us to live in perpetual high dudgeon inside our echo chambers than it is to have a meaningful conversation with people who disagree with us. The entire outrage industry has been designed to keep us in our bubbles, never challenged by disagreement and never required to think that we might be wrong.”

“The actual rewards that come from arguing with other people have nothing to do with winning and losing. A good argument helps us refine our own ideas and discover where our reasoning is the weakest. Other people's opposition can help us turn our own half-formed ideas into clear assertions backed by solid reasoning. And setting our ideas and opinions against someone else's helps us know each other better, which makes us better friends. We get these benefits from arguments when we collaborate with a partner. We do not get them when we try to destroy an enemy. That is how non-zero-sum games work.”

“Small acts of persuasion matter, because there is much less distance between people's beliefs than we often suppose. We easily confuse the distance between people's political positions with the intensity of their convictions about them. It is entirely possible for people to become sharply divided, even hostile, , over relatively minor disagreements. Americans have fought epic political battles over things like baking wedding cakes and kneeling during the national anthem. And we once fought a shooting war over a whiskey tax of ten cents per gallon. The ferocity of these battles has nothing to do with the actual distance between different positions, which, when compared to the entire range of opinions possible in the world, is almost negligible. None of this means that we can persuade our opponents easily. Persuading people to change their minds is excruciatingly difficult. It doesn't always work, and it rarely works the way we think it will. But it does work, and the fact that it works makes it possible for us to have a democracy.”

“When people say things that we find offensive, civic charity asks that we resist the urge to attribute to immorality or prejudice views that can be equally well explained by other motives. It asks us to give the benefit of doubts, the assumption of goodwill, and the gift of attention. When people say things that agree with or respond thoughtfully to our arguments, we acknowledge that they have done so. We compliment where we can do so honestly, and we praise whatever we can legitimately find praiseworthy in their beliefs and their actions. When we argue with a forgiving affection, we recognize that people are often carried away by passions when discussing things of great importance to them. We overlook slights and insults and decline to respond in kind. We apologize when we get something wrong or when we hurt someone's feelings, and we allow others to apologize to us when they do the same. When people don't apologize, we still don't hold grudges or hurt them intentionally, even if we feel that they have intentionally hurt us. If somebody is abusive or obnoxious, we may decline to participate in further conversation, but we don't retaliate or attempt to make them suffer. And we try really hard not to give in to the overwhelming feeling that arguments must be won - and opponents destroyed - if we want to protect our own status or sense of worth. We never forget that our opponents are human beings who possess innate dignity and fellow citizens who deserve respect.”

“Can people be persuaded?' is a very different question from 'Can arguments be won?' People change their minds about things all the time, but I'm not sure that anybody ever wins an argument. Persuasion is not a zero-sum game. It occurs when somebody moves, even slightly, away from one position and toward another. It is entirely possible for two (or more) people to move closer to each other's positions during an argument without either one being able to claim victory over the other. But we like to win, and we hate to lose, so the fact that people don't usually win arguments doesn't stop most of us from trying. And we all think we know what winning means: It means crushing opponents and making them cry. It means humiliating them in front of a crowd. And it means displaying our power and our rightness for all the world to see and acknowledge. And this means that we often end up trying to win by employing rhetorical strategies that are fundamentally incapable of persuading anybody of anything. And that looks a lot like losing.”

“[Ralph Waldo] Emerson believed that any friendship worthy of the name consisted of two essential elements: tenderness, or honest affection not tied to any material interest, and truth, or a willingness to speak sincerely without fear that frankness will destroy the relationship. Simply agreeing with everything someone says is a sign not of friendship but of insincerity. 'Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo,' he writes. Friendship should be 'an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which, beneath these disparities, unites them.”

“When somebody summarizes an argument thoughtfully before offering a counterargument, the resulting debate tends to be more meaningful and productive. Much of what passes for argument in our society consists of people badly misrepresenting each other's arguments and responding to points that another person is not making. This inevitably leads to frustration and anger and a feeling of being rhetorically manipulated instead of honestly challenged. Correctly paraphrasing somebody's position makes it much harder to misrepresent that position while trying to argue against it.”

“Most of us don't really fear political disagreements with our close friends. We fear not being liked and respected by people we like and respect. Challenging someone's political beliefs can signal (correctly or not) a lack of respect or affection. One way to prevent this from happening is to say something like 'I think you are a great person, and I value our friendship, so when I disagree with you it's because I value your opinion and want to learn more about how you see things.' If someone manages to communicate this idea to me, then I'm probably not going to hesitate to express my real opinions about controversial issues. It also helps if we don't call each other 'stupid,' 'evil,' or 'crazy' when 'I don't quite see it that way; help me understand what you mean' will do just fine.”

“Classical philosophy holds that perpetual agreement with another person is incompatible with friendship. Because no two people can possibly agree on everything, someone who never expresses disagreement with you is acting insincerely - and true friendship requires sincerity above almost everything else.”

“Civic flattery - or a political culture that allows people to appear to engage in civic discourse without ever having their opinions, or even their claims of fact, seriously challenged - is ultimately more damaging to democracy than civic enmity. When we incorporate civic flattery into our personal relationships, we get shallow, insincere friendships. When we use it as the basis for political alliances, we get echo chambers. And when a skilled political manipulator flatters a large portion of the population in an attempt to acquire and consolidate power, we get perhaps the most dangerous test that a democratic society can ever face: the emergence of a demagogue.”

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Book Keywords:

conflict, kindness, persuasion, friendship, rhetoric, political-arguments, honesty, polarization, charity, debate, conversation, democracy, filter-bubble, civility, dialogue, demagoguery, debates, ethics, flattery, disagreement, argument, outrage, arguments, civic-virtue, straw-man, game-theory, echo-chamber, zero-sum-game, sincerity, politics

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