General Question

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

What place does civil discourse play in a democracy?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (37399points) 3 weeks ago

This question is in the General Section.

Wikipedia says: Civil discourse refers to respectful conversation aimed at fostering understanding and constructive communication, where individuals within a group share different perspectives, enhancing the learning experience.

I grew up in a time and place where people discussed events with an aim to air ideas. Most hoped to persuade, but it wasn’t always the intention.

With the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, the idea that one side is correct and ordained by God has meant less discussion and more strident preaching at opponents.

Since the 2016 election, the radical left can sometimes appear just as stubborn and deaf to civil discourse.

What part does civil discourse play in your ways of discussing current events and topics of importance? Do you aim to hear and consider opposing views? What intentions do you hold when you speak? What’s your aim or motive?

Personally, if I sense I will be heard respectfully, I’m eager to voice my thoughts. That is rare these days, and almost nonexistent on the internet where we can each hide behind our screens and ignore the humanity on the other side of the interaction.

Can we keep this thread civil?

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42 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

Where is this “radical left” you speak of?

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@ragingloli We have some members here who seem to be in that camp. I’m open to being wrong.

canidmajor's avatar

Geez, I can’t even find it at lunch anymore. (I will spare you the rant, but it was a nasty piece of business when I spoke up recently to challenge a guy on his perception of absolute genetic determinism, and he complained to the host about me for that. And that isn’t even the rant.)

I just wanted a cool discussion, with a dash of Heisenberg, he wanted to lecture, unchallenged.

I have found this happens more and more these days.

Blackwater_Park's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake You’re not wrong and we have several on the other side too, just not the angry type, more of an old set-in-their-ways type. IMO, the idealogues shut down civil discourse regardless of their political “side.” They’re no different from each other, they just fly different flags. They’re not interested in things that don’t feed their anger, hatred or challenge their identity deriving beliefs. Actual civil discourse is a threat to them.

Demosthenes's avatar

I don’t have a problem with civil discourse, but I think the idea that civil discourse is inherently neutral, without agenda, and always arrives at some middle-ground compromise position that is more likely to be true than any other position to be itself manipulative and agenda-driven. If you’re labeling certain people as extremists, then you’re discrediting their ideas from the get-go, suggesting that the truth is always somewhere outside of those extremes. That may be true, or it may not be. There are plenty of ideas that were once considered extreme and outside the realm of “civil discourse” and no longer are so. It is not a guarantor of what is true and right. Some ideas have no merit, and some ideas do but are labeled “extremist” or “uncivil” so that that merit is obscured and suppressed.

Blackwater_Park's avatar

@Demosthenes I don’t see civil discourse always being a middle-ground destination. When done right, it’s hopefully a pragmatic destination. Certain people are extremists and they flatly will not listen to any points of view other than their own. A major tell is that they refer to the opposition as “the enemy” and not a neighbor that they disagree with.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@Demosthenes Good answer, but I think you have overlooked my questions in the details asking for motives and intentions when we speak. I recognize that individuals can have complex reasons behind ideas. Some of those reasons are logical and some aren’t.

@Blackwater_Park Yes, I’m hoping to grow into a inquisitive senior and not be set in my ways.

seawulf575's avatar

I’m good with civil discourse. Unfortunately I see more and more movements towards name-calling and changing of topics rather than civil discourse. Civil discourse is supposed to be a talk AND listen system. I have opinion A, you have opinion B. We state our opinions and listen to the other side. If there are things we disagree with that is where the discussion needs to be. You may never agree, but it is okay to talk it out.

JLeslie's avatar

Civil discourse allows people to hear other points of view and learn from people outside of their usual echo chambers. In a diverse democracy I think this is necessary, because too often we make assumptions about each other and we can easily feel defensive or threatened, but talking to each other hopefully builds trust.

Maybe there is common ground not known without talking to each other. Maybe people who don’t want to cause harm didn’t understand why what they were doing was harmful. Maybe solutions can be found for all parties through discussion.

Civil discourse does not always work, but it seems worth a try before acting only in our own self interest and possibly causing a lot of harm or even an unexpected backlash.

I don’t feel civil discourse is always about being moderate or compromise, sometimes there are parties involved that are objectively wrong, but I think often times there is positive learning that comes out of the discussion. Just wanting to be part of a discussion with opposing ideas and wanting to hear all sides is a step.

Pandora's avatar

Discourse means conversing or debating. Debates can become, heated or uncivil or unconscionable. I like to believe that we all come on here to exchange ideas but you can’t take the personal out of politics. I think politics is rarely civil. Since I was a child, I was taught early on that politics and religion are not for civil conversation. Like religion, we all have held onto certain beliefs when it comes to politics. Religion and politics are more for debating than just exchanging ideas like what to have for dinner. The cook wins every time unless we order out and then there is a debate about who to order from.

It can be frustrating to anyone when a person you are debating with doesn’t seem to see reason or as @Blackwater Park said, come to a pragmatic destination. Though often that depends on if there is some personal attachment.

Let’s say that a person calls me a fool for believing in God and that God was invented by leaders to pacify the poor and ignorant and convince them to be content with less. That would be considered uncivil and a personal attack on my beliefs. If you can drop your belief at any time then its not a belief. However, if they didn’t call me a fool and ignorant, I can see how religion was used to pacify the masses. So I would agree with part of their statement.
I can see how it would appear to an unbeliever but it would not mean that I came on fluther to lose my faith. It also does not mean that there isn’t room to learn something new.

Let’s say I didn’t believe in Dinosaurs. Like some people I know don’t. And someone explain to me how Christian beliefs and dinosaurs can exist together. I would listen to their point of view and eventually agree with them because it doesn’t mean I have to stop in believing in God. But we also have our own personal beliefs of what is good discourse and what is not.

So I can’t say I’m open to every new idea. That would mean my brain fell out. But, I have changed my views more than once because of some well-made arguments /discourse.
We all hope to be heard respectfully but that is an impossibility. That’s like trying to make 100 people happy. It’s hard to make one person you know well, happy.

And there is no point in having a discourse if you don’t hope to change someone’s view. So anyone saying that is not being truthful to themselves.
The exchanging of ideas is to help others see your point. Otherwise, there is no point in sharing your idea. Well there is one more reason, and that is that you are hoping to know more on the subject and maybe be proven wrong. But I find most people just want their beliefs confirmed by others. Prove me wrong. (lol)

janbb's avatar

I was a convenient nail for someone with a hammer today and it was most unpleasant and hurtful. I was on a tour of local black history sites from my community college and we were at a cultural site that had originally been a segregated black elementary school. After a presentation by the volunteer, he asked for questions and I asked if there was any resistance when they were integrated in the 1950s. A woman who was on the tour directed a lot of hostility at me for my (to me) fair question and continued to attack me with her ire after I stated my feelings of being attacked.

I’m not sure if this is relevant or not to the question but I will say that that interchange toward the end of a very positive day with a mixed group racially made me shut down and not feel like saying anything else.

I must add that afterwards, one of the woman trustees of the center saw me outside and came up to give me a hug but I am kind of hurt and angry about it still. My friend who was with me felt that one of the leaders of the group should have stopped this woman from attacking me.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@JLeslie Good answer.

@Pandora “We all hope to be heard respectfully but that is an impossibility.” I fundamentally disagree with that. I have personal experience of being involved in conversations that were civil in which there was active disagreement, but I never felt disrespected.

@janbb I am so sorry that happened to you.

To be clear, this question is about civil discourse in a democracy, not on Fluther. This is not Meta. This is the General Section.

filmfann's avatar

I used to enjoy watching the debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Both were remarkably smart and quite eloquent, and they represented the extreme views of their parties. I miss that.

I rarely agreed with either viewpoint.

JLeslie's avatar

@janbb I can’t imagine why she attacked you for that question. What was her objection? She was being uncivil and demonstrated exactly one of the big problems today in my opinion: getting overly reactive from a question.

In the OP this was kind of touched on regarding religion, that we can’t question, but it is pervasive for many things aside from religion. If we can’t ask a question how can we come to understand each other?

Really listening to each other is so important, but questions are how we correct misunderstandings and how we fill in information that is missing.

MrGrimm888's avatar

Well. There’s a spectrum, of “civil discourse.”

In extreme examples, we see people decide that if people don’t want to change to fit the protesting, they become violent.

Such “riots,” are usually just in an area of a city.
When they snowball into mass violence, and destruction of property, the ideology sufferers.
However. It can change history.

We were just discussing the OJ trial, and how the trial being held so close to the “LA riots,” may have effected the outcome of the trial.

Jan 6, is obviously an example too. People got upset, and stormed the Capitol Building.
Politicians were evacuated, or held in defensive positions.
They were trying to overthrow a US election.
In this case, it didn’t work, but the government got a reminder that the people can be a problem, if pissed enough.

When Trump was getting charged in NYC, law enforcement anticipated that the public could again become engaged and took steps to be ready.

It is an absolute fact, that Trump isn’t in jail right now, for continuing to violate his gag order, because of the optics.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@MrGrimm888 A definition of civil discourse is given in the details of the question, and it has very little to do with protests or riots as you’ve written about.

MrGrimm888's avatar

^I believe that I was illuminating the extreme spectrum.
I find extreme examples, to be most telling.

I meant no harm. Flag it if you want. Apologies.

Caravanfan's avatar

In recent years there really isn’t a discourse. Some intellectual organizations may attempt it but they are derided as “elite”

cookieman's avatar

I had an old friend (since 9th grade) who, later in life, considered himself a “log cabin Republican”. Fiscally conservative, tough on crime, concerned about immigration, etc. I always considered myself pretty left-of-center Democrat.

We got along great and could discuss and debate anything, including politics. Civil discourse for sure.

He was intelligent, educated, well informed, reasonable and displayed empathy. I think I was similar in that way.

I don’t see or hear anybody having those types of relationships and conversations anymore. It’s a lot of rhetoric, extreme views, and ignorant nonsense now.

Smashley's avatar

Civil discourse is nice when it can be cultivated. It is not some pure form of language or pinnacle of communication all people must strive for, or have buried deep within their psyche. Civil discourse is a set of tools and relationships that foster effective communication, and keep hurt feelings and misunderstandings to a minimum.

It’s great, but to achieve the actual state requires several things – education, mutual respect, and a similar understanding of the world. The first one seems to be waning in general, Facebook killed the second in 2016, Google dismantled the third in 2009.

Blackwater_Park's avatar

@cookieman It’s frustrating, I always hear from Democrats that Republicans are all a bunch of dumb, ignorant conspiracy theorists and are not worth talking to. I hear from Republicans that Democrats are a bunch of naive snowflakes brainwashed by their liberal arts professors and are not worth talking to.

The truth is that some of the most educated, intelligent people I have ever met and have the utmost respect for are….wait for it… both Democrats and Republicans. To be fair, most of them are really closer to the center but have one or two key issues that push them over the edge to one side or another.

hat's avatar

I don’t find the concept to be a coherent one. There are a few problems I have with the use of “civil discourse”, including…

1. Power dynamics. All communication between humans and groups of people means that there are some people who hold power, the means of mass dissemination, the power of the state, etc and there are those that do not. You can’t flatten discrepancies in power and influence when discussing public communication.

2. The loss of civil discourse is often held in high regard, but like MAGA, it’s quite difficult to provide a time and place where constructive actual civil discourse occurred as a norm. Some people feel the glory days of civil discourse were talking heads on television who were supposedly taking place in a “both sides” style discussion, but were in reality just two people who shared the same beliefs.

3. It’s a concept held in high regard by people who feel threatened because their understanding of the world is unsustainable and it’s being challenged. It has often manifested in a call for accepting the frameworks defined by those holding the power.

4. There are ethical problems with engaging in “civil discourse” when it comes to many subjects. I can’t imagine anyone would be ok with having civil discourse on whether or not we should bring back slavery or whether civil rights applies to only straight cisgender males.

5. There are practical problems with engaging in civil discourse when it comes to fighting for civil rights. Historically, rights have not be just given due to some civil debate. That’s not how history works.

If I’m misunderstanding what you mean by civil discourse, let me know.

Caravanfan's avatar

I completely agree with @hat

Blackwater_Park's avatar

@hat When civil discourse is off the table, things like “we should bring back slavery or whether civil rights apply to only straight cisgender males” can end up back on the table.

Caravanfan's avatar

Some things don’t work for civil discourse, but you need revolution and protests. The Civil Rights movement and the Free Speech movement are good examples as @hat said. The current assault on women’s rights will also require protests.

Blackwater_Park's avatar

@Caravanfan Abortion is a perfect example. I’m someone whose opinion was mostly changed by listening to the other side’s arguments. If more people talked to each other I’m not so sure this would be an issue again. This appears to be a result of the communication breakdown. There are a lot of Republicans who still believe the pro-life propaganda and don’t get to properly hear the opposing arguments. Fluther is one of the few places I see this happen at all.

Kropotkin's avatar

The Wikipedia entry and definition is honestly pretty bad, and is even flagged as having quality issues.

Civil in this context means civic, civilian, or public. Of course it can be polite and respectful, but it sure doesn’t have to be.

As @hat pointed out, there are disparities in power. For example, individuals venting on internet fora and social media platforms is practically irrelevant compared to some powerful lobbying group disseminating information through their mass media access and biased industry-funded research to manipulate public opinion and perception. Or ideological think-tanks (who often risibly describe themselves as non-partisan) putting out pseudo-research that looks authoritative to laypersons.

A lot of online “discourse” ends up revolving around arguing the merits of the information being pumped out by those very think-tanks and advocacy groups. On platforms like X, you can’t even be sure that you’re not arguing with bots or paid trolls working for PR agencies hired by specific industry lobbying groups and think-tanks (some even government funded)

I also agree with @MrGrimm888 that “civil discourse” does include protest and even rioting, and isn’t as limited as the Wikipedia definition.

In a democracy, “free speech” and getting to talk about ideas and policies for most people is merely cathartic, because people communicate individually with little to no audience and anonymously (like here). Real power is held by rich donors, industry-level lobby groups, corporate media, and the political class, all working symbiotically, and who define the scope of “legitimate discourse”.

Of course, individuals can and do organise collectively to amplify their message at various times. These collective movements are all without fail smeared as conspiratorial attempts to introduce communism, to subvert democracy, or to harm our established way of life and culture—usually with some unevidenced claim that they’re astroturfed movements backed by billionaires or corporations. Here’s a few of them: BLM, Occupy, Antifa, #MeToo, any Climate activist group, and Trans rights groups.

I will conclude by stating “civil discourse” does play a part in what we call “democracy”, and it’s really about public relations, manipulating public perception, and limiting the scope of allowable discourse. Because when you have a system in which people could in theory vote for their own interests, it’s very important to spend a lot of energy and resources on making sure that they do not.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

There are some good answers. Thank you.

I think where I disagree with @hat and @Kropotkin and @Caravanfan is that I’m not a cynic. I am honestly optimistic about the ability of a common citizen to affect change. I believe there are examples of it in abundance.

ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) is an excellent example of individuals coming together for a common cause and creating tangible change. ACT-UP radically changed the way drugs are brought to use in the US. That’s one example.

I take exception with the notion that riots are part of civil discourse. They are by definition uncivil. I am not here to discuss whether or not there are times and places where riots are necessary. That’s not what this discussion is about.

Can a protest be part of civil discourse? I think it can. I marched the day after Trump was inaugurated with the Women’s March. That was a valuable expression of my dissatisfaction.

I agree with those named above that discrepancies in power exist. I call my state elected officials regularly, and also my federal officials. I have their numbers saved in my phone. I started doing this when I read an article that elected officials these days pay more attention to phone calls than emails. I’m not intimidated by their power. I voice my thoughts and hang up. That’s my part.

As for economic power, I use my wallet consciously and buy goods from companies that do the least harm. I’m not going to buy a Tesla, and I’m not a Prime member of Amazon. Those billionaires don’t need my small amounts of money.

This thread demonstrates civil discourse.

hat's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake – I’m still unclear what you mean by “civil discourse” and what time period it existed.

You seem to agree that some direct action is necessary (ACT-UP), and possibly describe this as the “civil discourse”? Am I wrong?

Also, you appear to disagree with other direct action campaigns, and (possibly) describe them as “riots”. And you think that a protest can “be part of civil discourse” if it’s authorized, performative, and vague?

And there is nothing wrong with calling up your elected officials. But those calls mean nothing in this system. These representatives are not working for you, and your opinion doesn’t really matter that much.

And I understand the impulse in a capitalist system, where we are consumers first, to assume that unorganized individual acts of consumerism are moving levers. Money matters, and there are benefits of organized boycotts and divestment, which is very relevant to what is going on right now – it’s part of the core demands of those who have been ignored.

Anyway, I suspect we likely agree on a bunch of rights that have been won by direct action, which is often described as chaos or uncivil. I am just curious about how you define the specifics (time period, methods, mechanics) of this lost “civil discourse”.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@hat “Can a protest be part of civil discourse? I think it can.” That’s in my post.

You wrote, “And there is nothing wrong with calling up your elected officials. But those calls mean nothing in this system.” I disagree with that cynical assessment. I can rest east at night knowing that I’ve played my part.

I’m not sure I’m interested in trying to pin down a time when civil discourse was standard. It’s easy to see that history is a mixed bag in that matter. For example, the Selma March was part of civil discourse, but the reaction by the authorities was most definitely not.

Caravanfan's avatar

@Blackwater_Park I am so glad your mind was changed by civil debate. Most are not nowadays.

Blackwater_Park's avatar

@Caravanfan Here is where I both agree and disagree @hat and @Kropotkin and I suppose you to a degree as well. I absolutely realize that those higher in power structures have the upper hand in discourse. But, we are mostly complacent in giving it to them by not engaging in it regularly. We are easily gaslit when we don’t stray outside of our like-minded circles.

Zaku's avatar

“What part does civil discourse play in your ways of discussing current events and topics of importance?”
– That’s such an open-ended question, that it would seem almost impossible to fully address in a satisfying way.

“Do you aim to hear and consider opposing views?”
– Yes.

“What intentions do you hold when you speak? What’s your aim or motive?”
– That varies quite a bit from utterance to utterance. Again, what sort of answer can one reasonably expect to such a question without specific context?
– Sometimes, I aim to directly answer a question.
– Sometimes, I aim to entertain.
– Sometimes, I aim to ridicule.
– Sometimes, I aim to induce thought, or broaden perspectives.
– Sometimes, I have no aim or motive, other than to express my reaction.
– Etc etc etc etc etc etc.

“Personally, if I sense I will be heard respectfully, I’m eager to voice my thoughts. That is rare these days, and almost nonexistent on the internet where we can each hide behind our screens and ignore the humanity on the other side of the interaction.”
– I’m sorry you feel that way so seldom.

One thing I will say about this: “Since the 2016 election, the radical left can sometimes appear just as stubborn and deaf to civil discourse.”
– Well, the 2016 election brought in a criminal idiotic TV reality show personality and conman as figurehead who proceeded to appoint corporate saboteurs to head federal departments unpopular with big business, while regularly spouting distracting nonsense, and then establishment media and politicians over-normalized both him and the preposterously partisan politicians who enabled him. Far too many Christians failed to denounce other “preachers” as they went on radio and talked about Trump being a kind of messiah.
– So, in the face of that, what was even a sane centrist to do, but speak out about it? And what was there to say?
– Even your question reads like a recent MAGA GOP political add, inappropriately invoking “the radical left” – why did you write that?
– For far too long, the GOP politicians have gotten away with pretending to be good-faith participants, while going all-out with partisan politics that represents the interests of the wealthiest corporations, and the agendas of the worst evangelical Christian minorities, again for cynical political reasons, without being sufficiently called out. In such cases, “civil discourse” gets abused to enable such behavior, and speaking the truth about it may seem “uncivil” in context, but sometimes the truth simply has a very unsavory nature to it, but ought to be said, and the constant lies, not allowed to go unanswered.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@Zaku “Even your question reads like a recent MAGA GOP political add, inappropriately invoking “the radical left” – why did you write that?” Radical is the academic term used to describe the far left, and reactionary is the academic term used to describe the far right. Nothing else was intended.

I feel personally attacked, and I haven’t experienced that with you before. The questions are broad to allow answers to take many paths. What sort of question can one possible write on Fluther that is not broad when one’s aim is to discuss a topic in a general way? This is not a university class. This is a Q&A site with a varied user base.

It is personally insulting to me to be associated with MAGA hate. I can’t know, and I ‘m not asking, but I’ve possibly hated the Republican party far longer than almost anyone on this site. They laughed at my brothers while we were dying of AIDS, and they denied us care. I despise them vehemently.

“Why did you write that?” You want something specific? I am personally invested in civil discourse, because I live with mental health diagnoses. Civil discussion is the only form of debate I can participate in. When things get extreme, I have a physical response that can lead to days of illness.

Stepping away from the question now.

flutherother's avatar

Civil discourse is at the heart of democracy and without it you will have dictatorship on the one hand or chaos on the other. It requires those taking part to respect the feelings and the opinions of others, something that rarely happens in social media which tends to divide people up into opposing factions trading personal insults. I don’t think democracy is faring well in the era of social media.

Kropotkin's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake “I am honestly optimistic about the ability of a common citizen to affect change.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think collective action is about the only way any change is made in “democracy” (I’ve got a dim view of liberal democracy that I’ve written about before). It’s just that it is grindingly difficult, slow, and always always faces an orchestrated, well-organised and well-funded reactionary backlash.

mazingerz88's avatar

Interesting coincidence with this question. Just read this page on David McCollough’s biography on John Adams who wrote this during the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia.


“We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments. But there is great danger that those governments will not make us happy. God grant they may.

But I fear that in every assem-bly, members will obtain an influence by noise not sense.
By meanness, not greatness.
By ignorance, not learning. By contracted hearts, not large souls…

There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect, and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank, or we are undone. In a popular government, this is
our only way.”

Zaku's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake I’m sorry you feel personally attacked. That was not my intention at all.

For my comments about broadness, I just meant to say they seemed like very broad questions.

For the comments about the sentence about “the radical left”, I also didn’t mean that personally, but to express my reaction to the language used. There are just so many layers of severity about the subject. I feel like my political position is very rational and pretty balanced, but I have European sensibilities, and the US Overton window has moved so far right since about 1980, that on a US political compass, I tend to be off the charts, at or beyond Bernie Sanders’ positions (which I also consider rational and balanced).

But you mentioned 2016, and I would say that at that point, even centrists and traditional Republicans should have been calling out Trump, MAGA, and the evangelical insanity about them, and the news media should have been calling out the lies and nonsense instead of treating Trump and GOP like a respectable POTUS and legislators.

Again that’s not about you – it’s about the question you asked. “Civil discourse” should play a functional role between good-faith participants, but most of the GOP hasn’t been acting in good faith since at least 2008 with the Obama campaign, or in many cases even before that. What they’ve been doing, is taking advantage of the good faith of others, to exploit their agendas, and counting on not getting called out for it.

And, one of their disingenuous practices, is to mis-label anyone who disagrees with them, as radical leftists, even, for example, Joe Biden, who’s essentially a centrist or even conservative Democrat by traditional standards.

Furthermore, one of the abuses of “civil discourse” used by right-wing and Russian elements online, is to offer stock conversations for minions to endlessly spam into online conversations, including suggesting false equivalencies between “both sides”.

So the sentence “Since the 2016 election, the radical left can sometimes appear just as stubborn and deaf to civil discourse.” uses language that might come from such a perspective, even if you personally didn’t mean it to. So I was surprised to see it there.

That is, it’s become so common to see formulaic talking points online, instead of civil discourse, that I guess I felt the need to send the conversation there.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@Zaku Apology accepted.

mazingerz88's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake If you were at Women’s March, the one in DC, I was there too. I do remember witnessing something after the march, while I was eating a burger.

Two women were talking criticizing other women who had abortion when all of a sudden another woman who was sitting on another table stood, walked up to the women and yelled at them.

She quickly walked out before the two women could respond.

MrGrimm888's avatar

I’d like to thank HJ, and Z, for exemplifying keeping this “discourse” “civil.”

Peace and love.

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