The Intersections of Civil Discourse and Privilege


Alan Yarborough

June, 2020


For the past couple of decades in the United States in particular, two topics have emerged as critical underlying components of our common life together: civil discourse, as a tool for fostering more constructive political conversation, and privilege, which is particularly intertwined with and dependent on our respective identities. They both play critical roles in resolving, or at least explaining, the intractable conflicts ongoing within the U.S. Yet despite ample and growing literature on the two topics, there seems to be less direct commentary on the intersection of the two, in particular how one’s privilege might influence their participation in civil discourse either positively or negatively. This essay will explore that intersection after first explaining what is meant by these two concepts and how they are connected to conflict resolution theories of reconciliation and identity-based conflict. While both civil discourse and privilege can pertain to broader contexts, for the sake of brevity, I will focus primarily on civil discourse as it relates to public policy conversation and political party identification and privilege as it relates to white-black race relations.

On Civil Discourse 

Civility and civil discourse are difficult to define, because people have different thresholds for what is and is not acceptable behavior. A recent example are the starkly different views of Colin Kaepernick kneeling, and those who see it as an example of incivility, and the armed protestors calling for reopening of states during the COVID-19 pandemic, who see their actions as justified and necessary[1]. Another recent example to put in contrast with the reopening protests are the protests in Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline[2], the former encouraged by President Trump, the latter was met with strong physical force by local police. Though an unresearched conclusion, it is likely that many of the people protesting the stay-at-home orders are likely to also view Kaepernick’s actions as uncivil and disrespectful.

Despite the confusion, research by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate reveals 93 percent of people, regardless of political party, agree incivility in America is a problem[3]. This is not a new problem. Doctors Heidi and Guy Burgess point out in their essay on the definition of civility that the past twenty years have seen an, “increasingly controversial campaign for civility in public discourse[4].” One significant source of clarity is to separate civil discourse from the greater murkiness of civility writ large. Civil discourse’s “dictionary definition” is “conversation to enhance understanding.” Theresa Bejan, in her book Mere Civility, takes a more historical look at the modern American version of civility, tracing roots back to the creation of a secular code of conduct, if you will, to replace religious guidelines for behavior in the public square. Key features in other definitions of civility include tolerance, social unity, civic virtue, etiquette, and non-violence. All of these various definitions are underscored by Bajan’s point that calls for civility are “not superficial calls for politeness, but rather sophisticated efforts to think through what coexistence under conditions of fundamental disagreement requires.”

Many of the efforts in the aforementioned “campaign for civility,” such as Living Room Conversations or Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels), are in fact dialogue programs that focus on constructive conversation to help us better understand each other while fundamentally disagreeing on political issues. In my work with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, we created the interactive “Make Me an Instrument of Peace[5]” civil discourse class primarily for Episcopalians to hopefully leverage the denomination’s political diversity as an asset for reconciliation (the percentage of Republicans and Democrats in the membership of the Episcopal Church is very close to the political party composition of the general public[6]). Within that course we carefully distinguish civil discourse from commentary on the broader and more subjective concept of civility.

Yet even the more straight-forward concept of civil discourse is strongly critiqued from across the U.S. political spectrum. From the liberal end, one frequent criticism is that it is used as a means of both silencing the already marginalized (i.e. those lacking certain privilege) and maintaining the status quo determined by those already in power (i.e. those with certain privileges). Rev. Lenny Duncan, a Lutheran priest, describes a recent faith-based initiative called Golden Rule 2020 as a document that “holds up white privilege which is the playground of the moderate[7].” Conservative voices express concern over calls for civil discourse too, like Matthew Cochran, whose position is summed up in the title of his article, “When The Left Uses Civility As A Weapon, Drop It And Fight Back[8].” It seems the U.S. public even disagrees on how we should disagree.

While academics and practitioners working in the realm of civil discourse programs have pointed to the rise of partisan conflict in the U.S. for well over 20 years[9], partisan positions are increasingly tapping into roots of domestic conflict that go back centuries and reinvigorate thinking over violent periods in the country’s history. The reemerging controversy of removing or preserving Confederate commemorative statues is an example where the divide falls strongly along partisan lines and taps into the violent racist history. Both this time frame, the violent undertones, and increase in violent hate crimes[10] places the effort of dialogue programs within the conflict resolution theory of reconciliation. Daniel Bar-Tal explains, “reconciliation is not a necessary process in every intergroup conflict. It only applies to those intergroup conflicts that last for a long time (at least two decades) and involve extensive violence[11].”

In describing reconciliation, John Paul Lederach emphasizes that “relationship is the basis of both the conflict and its long-term solution,” and that the main contribution of reconciliation is that it views long-term conflicts as systems and emphasizes relationships within that system. Further, that such engagement requires an encounter that creates the “space for the acknowledging of the past and envisioning of the future (as) the necessary ingredient for reframing the present[12].” He goes on to specify that this encounter space is the place where truth, mercy, justice, and peace meet. Civil discourse, a tool for conversation, is a tool for encounters. Civil discourse presumes either a preexisting relationship between the people speaking to one another or the desire to form a relationship. This implies a willingness to grow and deepen one’s own viewpoints through the process of listening to and sharing with others, though it does not always lead to a change of mind. While civil discourse is not capable of bringing about reconciliation on its own, it is a tool to help communities in conflict reconcile, particularly by helping to expose and deepen the understanding of truth.

On Privilege

The second topic at hand is the topic of privilege. Privilege itself is a pretty simple theory: a privilege is a “right or immunity granted as a peculiar advantage or favor,” and the theoretical background explains that these are not earned, but inherited at birth, and thus one with a particular privilege does not know what life is like without it. Each person has a different situation for which they are not responsible, thus each person has a different portfolio of privileges. Some are tall, some are men, some are able-bodied, and on and on. Through no fault or effort some are more fortunate than others[13].

In some cases, the context of a given moment may determine whether or not something is a privilege. For example, being tall is known to have economic advantages, with some studies showing an $800 a year pay bump per extra inch of height[14]. However, given airlines push to limit legroom[15], being tall is not necessarily a privilege in the context of flying. Privileges with such variations are still often privileges in aggregate, even if in there are some downsides. Additionally, some privileges are not always static and may change depending on one’s surrounding environment. Someone may convert from one religion to another, or an immigrant fleeing violence may end up living in a peaceful country, but still carry with them the scars of such experience.

So where does privilege fit within the context of conflict resolution theories? Many of the most prominent privileges—race, gender, class, national origin, religion, and more—are also ways that people frame their own identities and form collective identities with others. Vamik Volkan explains[16], “large-group affiliation can be so powerful because an individual’s sense of ethnic, religious, or national identity is so closely tied to his or her “core” identity— his or her deep, personal sense of sameness.” These identities play significant roles in conflict in part because when we feel threatened by an “outside,” i.e. not within our identity, force, we form an us-versus-them framework and develop a perceived sense of belonging with those who are like us. Volkan also speaks about large-group identities as not “swinging free” of one another—in other words they overlap, for example an ethnic identity may also tie strongly to a national identity. These same dynamics play out in privileges, where there is overlap and interplay between them that may compound or diminish one’s individual privileges. For example, being a tall woman does not carry the same privileges as being a tall man. Privilege, in a sense, is a result of these dynamics explored in identity conflict theory; privilege is not the identity itself, but the dynamics of how a particular group rises above another. There is not full overlap, of course, with identity theory. Some privileges lend themselves to grouping, for example, while others do not. Tall people typically do not form a group identity from which they justify conflict against short people. Yet even with that variation, there are often ties between such privileges and identity conflict—for example, in Nazi Germany where having blue eyes and blond hair would have resulted in dynamics of privilege. This, however, was tied more to establishing a group ethnic and national identity from which greater power was amassed to justify great conflict and violence against others.

Turning more directly to racial identity in the U.S., numerous recent books about the trends of racism in 21st Century America reference the strong ties to the full history of the country back through colonialism. This longevity emphasizes the intractable nature of racial conflict. The gaps between populations in the U.S. based on racial identity are compounded over time, from generation to generation, as are the impacts of violence and trauma. One simple, seemingly benign, example is my own undergraduate education. In 2009, I attended Clemson University in South Carolina, where two previous generations of my family went to college. A positive factor on my application was my family’s legacy. To put down that my grandfather had attended Clemson too, when at that time black people were prohibited from attending, is a direct transfer of privilege from two generations ago. I was afforded an advantage in the application process that no black person could have.

Addressing this identity-based conflict must involve openly talking about it. Lederach emphasizes truth as one of four critical components of reconciliation—truth that involves an acknowledgement of past wrongs and a validation of loss and pain. This plays a critical function with mercy, where without truth, a society cannot let go of what has passed and move into a new beginning. Though advances have been made throughout U.S. history toward racial justice and reconciliation, there seems to be a deeper cultural dynamic that has failed to tell this truth, and thus failed to genuinely acknowledge past wrongs, compounding history on top of history, including, as we are likely to see in the future, the current moment of great racial disparity in the health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 One barrier to this truth-telling process is an inherent dynamic of privilege: that those with privilege cannot see their privilege and tend to deny its existence. Moreover, assessing privilege involves a type of personal confrontation in acknowledging and accepting one’s own complicity in an unjust, imbalanced reality. This is in line with components of truth telling, remorse, apology and forgiveness so critical to reconciliation.

When considering white privilege in this framework, there are several new and important dynamics to factor in. There exists a strong partisan divide in how Americans view the legitimacy of white privilege. Seventy-one percent of Republicans believe white people “get few or no advantages in society that black people do not have,” while 83% of Democrats say white people do have those advantages[17]. Further research from the Pew Research Center dives into more nuance on the subject. One particularly striking statistic related to truth telling involves responses to, “when it comes to racial discrimination, the bigger problem for the country today is people a) seeing discrimination where it does not exist or b) not seeing discrimination where it really does exist[18].” Among Republicans and those leaning Republican, 77% say the bigger problem is imagining discrimination when it is not actually occurring, while 78% of Democrats and those leaning Democrat believe the opposite.

Author Brando Simeo Starkey describes this denial of white privilege as a type of, “ignorance [that] becomes a tool of racial domination. By denying the unfairness, white folk never have to confront it[19].” This construction of reality helps white people to avoid culpability, and Starkey argues this is culturally perpetuated through how we teach each other about our histories and our interactions with one another. He explains that this leads to white working class people, who lack privilege from a wealth and education standpoint yet still maintain privilege from a racial standpoint, to hear stories of people of color and then, “disregard them and castigate minorities for blaming the white man for all problems.” An important point about the overlapping nature of privileges, just like the overlapping nature of identities, remains: while it is true the stories of working class whites are filled with struggle, this is not mutually exclusive with the struggles of people of color against white supremacy and efforts to perpetuate (or deny) white privilege. Both exist concurrently, but U.S. culture’s tendency to suppress the full truth in favor of narrative that reinforces power dynamics leads many to believe these realities cannot exist together.

On the Intersection of Civil Discourse and Privilege

So how, then, with this denial, do we talk about the truth of a problem in the first place without exacerbating the growing partisan political divide? I want to return to Lederach’s concept of encounter, the word he uses to describe the space for reconciliation. For encounter to be successful, i.e. to openly express a painful past (truth) and search for an articulation of a long term, interdependent future, we require a proactive orientation toward relationship. How well we perform with such a posture may depend on how well we can speak to and learn from one another, how well we can engage in conversation to enhance our understanding of truth, experience, and perception.

Brené Brown speaks about belonging in her book Braving the Wilderness, and she explains that her research shows belonging is a primal desire for humans. More specifically, however, what humans want is real connection with others but not at the expense of authenticity, freedom, or power[20]. As the U.S. culturally, politically, economically and legally seeks to be more inclusive, this particular element of belonging presents a strong barrier between the privileged and the unprivileged. Civil discourse requires removing such barriers, yet breaking those barriers may jeopardize the power developed in the separate groups in which we find belonging. 

From Nazi Germany to the Donald Trump Administration, belonging can be weaponized in part because of that dynamic between power and privilege. The New Yorker describes the beginning of this weaponization, “as a political force [that] seizes the power to define its members as insiders and certain others as intruders. This is done in the name of protection of the motherland[21].” Examples of this behavior against non-white people have been increasing since even before the Trump Administration, when there was not necessarily a cohesive group to which such inside members belonged. Yet Trump has moved to change that, providing this movement a specific and well-defined group to belong to: MAGA. This exaggerates an already stark political divide among partisan lines, but it did not create it. And the differences are not only in party affiliation (and presumably a set of political opinions), but in identity as well. In 2017, 59% percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters were non-Hispanic whites, whereas 83% of Republican voters shared that identity[22]. Further, while racial diversity is continuing to increase in the U.S. Congress, this is largely due to Democratic representatives, with only 1 of the 22 nonwhite new members elected in 2018 belonging to the Republican Party[23]. These trends converging leads to a Republican Party that is more white, relatively speaking, thus embodying a greater amount of white privilege, and enhanced in-group dynamics resulting from a newly defined sense of belonging.

Yet another curious and relevant trend at play is a growing sense of belonging not out of attraction to political opinion, identity, or even love of political party, but out of hate for the other. Both Republicans and Democrats increasingly define themselves by what they are against, rather than what they are for. The hatred of Republicans among Democrats and hatred of Democrats among Republicans significantly skews our perceptions of what the other side believes, driving us further away from truth. Brown calls this trend “common enemy intimacy,” but says that bonding with people because you hate the same thing is not real bonding. The Atlantic recently wrote to this point: “if the reasons for mutual hatred are rooted as much in mutual misunderstanding as in genuine differences of values, that suggests Americans’ divisions should in principle be easy to remedy. It’s all just a matter of education[24].” This presents us with an opportunity to work against both polarization and avoidance of truth, and hopefully, along with it, reach a greater understanding of the dynamics of privilege.

Identity can play a key role in determining who is credible, affording a privilege to certain speakers over others. Communication research shows credibility has a strong impact on a speaker’s persuasive ability mainly because a credible source is viewed as “believable,” i.e. truthful[25]. Speakers who share the same racial identity as their audience have been shown to be more effective, regardless of actual competence or trustworthiness. This means that, for example, a white person hearing another white person speak about race and privilege may well be viewed as more effective than a black person speaking about the same topic to the same audience. This dynamic plays out in numerous ways along racial lines, perhaps most consequentially in education, policing, and the criminal justice system.

Civil discourse does not happen in a vacuum, but with all our inherent privileged identities and personal experiences. And not only does this make privilege theory itself difficult to discuss (because rather than talking about a topic that takes place “over there,” privilege theory must by default include commentary about ourselves), but it means our privileges impact how we are heard depending on who is listening and the privileges they may have. As the division in the U.S. falls more along political party identification, proven to be misleading sources of belonging, we are being misled into believing what is and is not true about the other side. Moreover, as The Atlantic points out, closer attention to politics as well as higher levels of education actually reinforce these misconceptions of the other, rather than equip us to break them down, and that Americans who track news and politics at a lower rate actually misjudge their political adversaries at a much lower rate.

This brings us to civil discourse as a potential solution to our self-education. When done in an in-person, group setting, the most widely appreciated (and fun) exercise from the “Make Me an Instrument of Peace” class involves an exercise on values.[26] The activity first presents one element of civil discourse as beginning our conversations from a place of values rather than partisan positions. By doing so, this can help us to see what we have in common with one another rather than reinforce preconceived ideas of the other.

In the exercise, each participant has in front of them a sheet of paper with a long list of values. They are to underline the values they hold dear, circle the values they think the country holds dear, and put a box around the values they believe the Church holds dear, with some values falling into multiple categories. Afterwards, the entire group enters open discussion about what struck them as surprising and how they would categorize and rank the values they selected against one another. In two years of conducting this training, I have led this for politically and racially homogenous audiences and politically and racially diverse audiences, where participants in the room are generally aware of the composition of the group. For audiences that are understood to be more homogeneous, participants are consistently surprised at how much they differ with one another on categorizing and ranking these values. The opposite is true for groups understood to be politically diverse: participants are instead pleasantly surprised at how much they share in common in their values. This result reinforces the research that tells us political partisanship, and bonding over hate of the other, leads to great misunderstanding of each other. After this exercise, participants come away more rejuvenated, confident, and optimistic after having learned from one another and broken down some of those preconceptions.

Acknowledging how privilege intersects with civil discourse will make conversations richer. Addressing the power differential inherent in privilege is critical if we are to break down personal biases that lead us to hear different speakers with different levels of credibility just because of their visible or claimed identity. There is also a power differential in civil discourse built around experience, not just identity, which may lead some to speak about certain topics with greater emotion and difficulty than others if they have had a particularly personal connection—the immigrant advocating for immigration reform, or the survivor of domestic abuse speaking out against domestic violence, as examples. As we get closer to one another, which civil discourse requires us to do, our openness to one another becomes more based in common humanity and less in socially constructed stereotypes. Polling shows that across the board communities that have refugees are grateful for them, regardless of political affiliation. This firsthand experience of encounter with refugees then shifts the perspective about immigration and refugees broadly in an affirming way.

A growth in understanding through intentional conversation, a deeper understanding that can work against the misperceptions built up by political polarization and common enemy intimacy, is a key outcome of civil discourse. That deeper understanding is not just about what opinions we each hold on a given topic, but about what values, life experiences, and intellect have led us to those views. In that process we can share and uncover a great deal of truth about our experiences. Privilege perpetuates barriers to overcoming societal sources of conflict, like structural racism and sexism, and those barriers can be broken down when a critical mass reach an understanding that these actually are problems that need to be overcome in the first place. Without truth being spoken more widely and deeply, it will be difficult to reach that place of reconciliation Lederach challenges us to imagine. In this pursuit, we must think more critically about how those with privilege can leverage their position for greater influence, and second, how we may knowingly or unknowingly hold unreasonable expectations of those without privilege to speak for their own justice and equality.

We must be cautious that this is not about silencing or further marginalizing others’ voices because we would like to be seen as “woke,” but rather about working together through enhanced dialogue to build a common vision for the future. In practice, this could look like white people taking it upon themselves to speak more frequently, openly and honestly about structural racism and prejudice particularly to white audiences, where they will also be viewed as more credible. It would look like men speaking up against sexism and gender-based violence particularly to men, who may view them as more credible. It is in some sense the same concept embedded in allyship often associated with straight and cisgender people vocalizing their support for LGBTQ people.

Why does the intersection of civil discourse and privilege matter? It’s importance is in part summed up in this quote from Wise’s book: “The power of resistance is to set an example: not necessarily to change the person with whom you disagree, but to empower the one who is watching and whose growth is not yet complete, whose path is not at all clear, whose direction is still very much in the proverbial air.” The acknowledgement and understanding of our own privileges are large areas of growth not yet complete. That power of resistance is the resistance to conflict, and the empowerment is the construction of a mindset of peace. Wise explains a core component of civil discourse: that it is not what it seems—to change minds of those who we walk with—but to take on a personal responsibility in honing a way of being that emphasizes curiosity, education, growth, and the pursuit of a better direction.



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Khatib, S. M. (1989). Race and Credibility in Persuasive Communications. Journal of Black Studies, 19(3), 361–373.

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[9] Brewer, Mark D. “The Rise of Partisanship and the Expansion of Partisan Conflict within the American Electorate”

[11] Bar-Tal, Daniel. “From Intractable Conflict Through Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation: Psychological Analysis.”

[12] Lederach, J.P. Building Peace, Chapter 3.

[16] Volkan, Vamik. Blind Trust : Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror

[20] Brown, Brené. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

[25] Khatib, Syed Malik. “Race and Credibility in Persuasive Communications.” Journal of Black Studies. 19:3 (Mar. 1989.) pp. 361-373.

[26] A version of this exercise, adapted for a wider audience is posted on BI. It is entitled Values-Based Conversations.