Spirited Discussions: Incentivizing Civil Discourse

The Spirited Discussions series is intended to be an uninhibited exploration of a topic related to civil discourse. Exploration because it is not a debate but rather a conversation in search of truth. Uninhibited because of the spirits. Or, as my housemate Nate puts it: “two losers with alcohol going back and forth” because we don’t have anything else to do on a Thursday night… Take your pick.

For this week’s episode I sat down with my housemate, Nate Coffey, to discuss the incentive structures around civil discourse. If you like what you read, check out more spirited discussions here.

This week’s discussion is brought to you by Jack Daniels. Enjoy!


Nate:  A think a landscape to be aware of is the digital one.  You have these islands of digital space that people of the same political leaning only engage in. And anytime you hop off that island it is never for something productive, it’s usually for something malicious or ultimately unproductive… Digitally, if you don’t have to engage with an individual, if you have incentives to only interact with what is safe and comfortable and disincentives to interact with things that make you uncomfortable, why would you?

Joe: So I believe there is an issue that we don’t come into contact with each other and there is a separate issue that when we do, we don’t know how to discuss. But I think there is a middle issue, which is a merger of the two, which is that if we come into contact with each other, it’s not in a situation where we can have some sort of meaningful discussion and mutual understanding. I think of social media as the greatest example. I also think of rival protesters shouting at each other. I think in artificial ways we come into contact with each other and those are just not the right mediums to have a productive discussion.


Nate: Anecdotally, I have seen individuals who are already part of a friend group who have had productive political conversations but that is not as useful as intergroup interaction… It’s predicated on these two individuals who already have enough respect for one another to even interact in the first place.

Joe: This is actually something that I think about a lot. “In-Group” debate and devil’s advocacy. You have a circle of people who agree with you on a certain percentage of your policy views… What is the incentive for in-group debate? There is an obvious incentive for me to try to convince someone on the other side to change their views.  Why would I try to convince someone on my side to change their views? Because I actually think that is where the most productive civil discourse can happen.

Nate: It’s less a case of no incentives as it is a case of no disincentives. You kind of have nothing to lose in the sense that you are already bound to someone, you are already on the same side, it’s already been determined that by and large you are going to agree, so it’s easier to engage with someone you’ve already won over. Who you feel isn’t fundamentally opposed to you… The reverse of that though is that there is natural community pressure to adhere to a streamline way of thought, to group think.

Joe: As I think you’ve implicitly referenced, an incentive is to learn. And I think people’s guards are down when they are discussing with someone who is a good friend, who they agree with a lot, but there’s this one particular disagreement. I don’t feel like I need to convince you because I know we already agree on a lot. And hopefully it’s a situation where I don’t need to prove myself to anyone else. We can just have a frank discussion I want to learn why you feel this way.


Joe: The irony with civil discourse in my mind, and the different efforts that I’ve seen attempted,   is that they probably target the people who are already interested… The stubborn, polarized partisans are not going to be interested.  How would you get them interested? Any civil discourse effort that doesn’t target them is missing out on the core constituency… I want my blog to be about debate. And not about silencing debate. It feels more natural, it is easier to get angry than the step back and be calm. And I think that efforts that try to tell people “hey, be calm, just relax we can talk this out” actually kind of miss the point. I think we should disagree. You have a view for a reason. We just need to channel it in the right direction.

Nate: Right, but you don’t tell. You show them. By example, I think, how to debate. You don’t tell them they need to chill out and be better. You show them an example of chilling out an being better.


Joe: I literally saw a headline yesterday which said “CNN Panel Erupts After blah blah blah” and my immediate thought was that this is the example we are setting. The same channel that consistency talks about how discourse is falling apart is putting on panels where people are yelling at each other. And it’s probably great for ratings. Because I want to watch that clip, too.

Nate: Hell yeah. I don’t want to discern any policy from them. But the problem is that people do. In my experience, a lot of the news I’ve seen ends up being more about entertainment and less about giving me facts and information. Don’t pander to me. Don’t try to convince me that I don’t like a particular politician. Let me come up with that on my own given what’s happening. The problem is that this doesn’t exist to the same capacity as it did back in the day. I was watching news clips from the 1950s and 1960s. They were quite backwards in terms of what they were talking about. But, it was informative.  There was like science being mentioned. It was almost an in-depth documentary that wasn’t out to make me pissed off or something.

Joe: Yeah. You know we’ve been talking about incentives mostly about individuals. But I think institutions have incentives that are contrary to civil discourse. I think the media is one. The more people yell, the more controversial something is, the better ratings it gets. There’s a Pew article that shows that more polarized politicians get more likes and retweets on social media… And I think the news is that way. The farther to the fringe, the farther from the norm, the more likely you are to have a “story” and something that people will tune in to.


Nate: Odds are, on any particular issue, if you have two experts going at it, they are going to be nuanced, they are probably going to come across, at least in decorum, as more moderate. Even if they actually aren’t. Because they are forced to—as experts on the issue—go toe to toe with the points that are being brought up. It’s also not media circus. In my mind this is on CSPAN.

Joe: That’s what I laugh about. There are these sorts of resources to watch, to actually learn about policy, to read. I think of CSPAN. We watch PBS Newshour very, very frequently. Overall, pretty unbiased. They make an effort to voice opinions from both sides. And I think there’s a reason it’s not the most popular news outlet. People want to hear something they agree with. So they turn on MSNBC or they turn on Fox. So even if you tuned in your Hunger Games world, people wouldn’t tune in. Until the killing starts.

Nate: I think what the media has had to do, especially in the last 20 years, is compete with something that captures people’s attention a lot easier. That is more accessible. And even in some cases, cheaper. And that’s the internet. The increase in people who get their news from Facebook is exponential. It’s insane… So they have to compete with that. So that makes them more sensationalist in nature. I think it might drive people closer to the extremes. You can just sit on Facebook and get all the information you want and just read headlines and nothing else… I think that’s something that’s going to get worse for a while, as more and more of the population is more internet inclined.


Nate: You said that people on the left and right ends of the standard deviations are the loudest. I would argue that, yes, they are the loudest. And because society has made it easier for the loud to get reelected—Facebook, likes, etc—you have to be a character to get attention in this world. So that person gets elected. And by getting elected, polarizes the country, the state, or the country in some way because they are so far to the left or right. And that pushes away people from the middle… Seeing such a far to the left thing, for example, actually succeed makes someone take a step further to the right. They’re more likely now to vote for someone who is farther to the right than prior. Then that person invokes the same sort of feedback loop in other parts of the country.

Joe: I love that. So what I’m imagining is that it’s not about causality. It’s actually a feedback loop. For the reason of attention, there is a natural inclination for these feedback loops to more from the center to the outside. And, on top of one within each party, there is an incentive for the opposite party to be the same.


Thank you for tuning in to FixPnyx’s inaugural Spirited Discussion. If you like what you read, check out more spirited discussions here.

I would like to dedicate this post to the memory of Colt Richter, a man who enjoyed great spirits as well as great discussions. He will be missed dearly. 

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