Civil Discourse on the Radical Left: Growing in Community With One Another

Civil discourse among people in an activist community is critically important because without it, we simply don’t listen or fully hear each other.

What is civil discourse? Civil discourse is communication between people, with the aim of an exchange of information and ideas, which is rooted in respect and dignity. Civil discourse allows us to truly have a reciprocal relationship with others.

The starting point is listening. Without listening we can’t learn about each other or grow in our understanding of or empathy for one another — or grow from our experiences with each other. And we can’t form necessary relationships and connections, which are the very foundation activism.

If people don’t feel understood, respected, and treated with dignity, they are less likely to be involved or work each other.

None of us can organize alone. There is strength in numbers. And all of us are empowered by human relationships because each human being has unique qualities, knowledge, skills, and talents from which we can all benefit.

Without a foundation in active listening skills, strong relationships cannot be formed. Without relationships there is no empathy. And without empathy there is no trust. Without trust there is no solidarity. Without solidarity there is no movement.

It is all tightly connected. If one piece exists without the other, it simply falls apart like a tapestry unraveling at the seams. This plays itself out in the microaggressions we live with and/or witness on a daily basis.

Microaggressions are slights against other people, which at their core are linked to oppression and bias.

Microaggressions are a barrier to building relationships and solidarity. In order to work to avoid microaggressions we must take up the mantle of civil discourse.

The cornerstone of civil discourse is civility. Civility is based on shared social values. These values include respecting and valuing the worth and dignity of every person.This necessitates regarding others and considering their needs and feelings.

Civil discourse seeks to improve understanding, which can lead to better relationships and minimize oppression. Effective communication skills are important to transmitting information and ideas, but also in helping transform society.

Effective Communication

Assertive communication respects others perspectives and experience and fosters a culture of open communication and free exchange of ideas. In turn, this creates a community where people feel safe. In order to feel safe people must feel welcomed to participate. A welcoming environment is based on compassion, curiosity, and the sharing of information. People need to feel like they are in something together and not pitted against one another.

We need to find out how to foster a culture of comradeship, because a hostile environment is disabling and holds our transformational potential back. Aggressive communication creates a hostile and toxic environment where people attack each other and direct harsh criticism at others. This includes behaviors such as belittling, scolding, talking down to others, piling on, trolling, insults, shaming, making fun of people, and ridicule.

These are bullying tactics used by people to dominate and intimidate others into submission. The aggressive communication style disregards the feelings and needs of others. One may think being aggressive creates the response one desires. However, it comes at a great cost. It undercuts trust and mutual respect, which leads people to avoid or oppose the person using this communication style.

For example, those who experience microaggressions will develop a lack of trust for others, particularly dominant members of a group. In the long term, this behavior destabilizes and undermines our movement’s ability to be effective.

Our society is intersectional and diverse and we need people of every kind to come together if we have any hope of reaching our aims. Also our values as radicals dictate that we equalize power structures, are sensitive to oppressed groups, and honor histories and lived experiences. How we communicate is the cornerstone of our ability to foment revolutionary power.

Free Speech

We must realize that free speech is not absolute.

Speech can be wielded as a weapon. Many hide behind “freedom of speech” to protect themselves from taking responsibility for the impact of their words on others.

Some personally attack or use racist, sexist, or homophobic language. This is often seen as “hate speech” and many understand why this is unacceptable.

Many reject the idea that speech on the Internet, or otherwise, should be restrained or curtailed in any way. Some fear censorship and demand that in order to keep our free speech rights we must be able to say whatever comes to our minds instantly. The impulse to type and press “send” is dominating our discourse. It is far too instantaneous and often goes without much forethought or reflection.

Behind a computer screen, the process of communication can become depersonalized and it is all too easy to allow an “anonymous” character to take over. The Internet seems to empower people to take leaps and bounds over lines they may not cross otherwise, and people tend to feel less empathy for others. Moreover, the ability to send harmful messages to others without much consequence or accountability can increase cruel and callous behaviors towards others.

Other forms of harmful speech are harder to pin down. Sometimes people get angry, fly off the handle, or have an emotional outburst, and later apologize. Then they act as if apologies wipe the slate clean and all is forgiven. Unfortunately, there are too many instances like this and it becomes a pattern of abuse.

Abuse is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. As activists we have had a hard time coming to terms with this reality. As uncomfortable or awkward as it can sometimes be, we must confront it, or we risk losing the effectiveness of our movement.

The far Left has been a laughing stock for years based on our well known “sectarian in-fighting,” “squabbling,” “factionalism,” and “divisiveness.” If we keep fighting each other we will never be able to effectively work together to further our common cause or realize the vision of a better society together.

I argue that many tend to value free speech and the right to critique more than they value respecting people’s emotional boundaries and psychological wellbeing. This is a grave mistake, which works to our own detriment.

It is important that we pause to reflect upon where we have gone wrong. We simply cannot stand by any longer while certain individuals are allowed to run carte blanche over others without limits, consequences, or accountability. Our passive stance on these issues must end if we have any hope of furthering our movement past this predatory phase that capitalism reinforces.

Treating Others With Respect

The move to become more sensitive towards one another is not a “liberal idea.” Wanting respect between people does not make us the “PC police.” It is not about “respectability politics” either.

It simply makes us dedicated to transformational action and critical consciousness. I am not suggesting we tell people what to do or not do or what to say or what not say. That would be authoritarian, and those on the radical left believe strongly in self-determination and autonomy.

Instead, I suggest we encourage people and ask them to choose to adjust their behaviors in order to benefit themselves and others. In particular, people in dominant groups must listen to those in marginalized groups when it comes to what words or phrases are hurtful to them. If people want to participate in an organization, they have to be willing to follow some basic structure for communication, and this requires some discipline.

I believe it is necessary to modify our behaviors because it accommodates others and helps facilitate effective communication and community-building. We can have dialogue and debate without harming others.

Many insist that political communication must be a harshly critical process. However, when it comes to being critical of people, we must remember that harm is not just physical, but psychological and emotional. Microaggressions, at their core, are about psychological and emotional harm. Collectively, they represent a social system and structure that seeks to dominate and control others for the gain of the dominant group. Exclusionary attitudes have a wide impact.

So many people have the attitude of, “don’t tell me what to do. I will say whatever I want!” I call this a staunch “libertarian undercurrent,” which I encounter often on the radical left. However important personal liberty is, we must balance the needs of one with the needs of many. We cannot allow our own ideas to be forced upon others in an inconsiderate manner.

It is actually quite immature and selfish to put one’s own needs before others all the time. When we dismiss, discount, or devalue the feelings of others or shout them down, we are saying our views or rights to speech are more important than theirs. This process is one of superiority.

It also does not matter if you are on the “right” or “wrong” side of an issue. Tactics matter and process matters. Even when defending their views, radicals need to do so with the concept of non-hierarchy in mind. Reproducing hierarchies to try and bring down hierarchies is counter-productive.

Non-Hierarchal Relationships

If we aim to work towards a non-hierarchal and egalitarian society, then we have to be committed to its principles.

If we aim to work towards a non-hierarchal and egalitarian society, then we have to be committed to its principles.

A central aim of a radical society is to reconnect with our humanness and our social nature with one another. In order to do so, power must be shared, even renounced and actively ceded from those in dominant positions to those in oppressed positions.

This is key in the discussion about microaggressions. When we speak over others in an overbearing manner, we squash freedom. When we allow dominance, authority, superiority, control, and hierarchy to permeate our social relations and interpersonal communications, we are complicit in the transmission of violence upon people’s souls and spirits. People who feel hurt or intimidated by others’ behaviors are less likely to engage and more likely to be driven away from participation. The negatively critical voice, no matter how constructive we may think it is, is often destructive.

Basic human psychology dictates that people become defensive when they think they are being singled out. When people perceive being attacked, humiliated, embarrassed, or shamed they will become defensive. In order to move past these basic defenses, people must use a higher level of coping mechanisms.

However, people from abusive family backgrounds may have learned maladjusted ways to cope. We know that people come to us from many different backgrounds and diverse experiences. We know different personalities, temperaments, past trauma history, and mental illness all shape our current behavioral patterns. We must be willing to delve into these issues if we have any hope of transcending them.

When I bring these issues up some people say, “But we’re activists, not therapists!” I am not suggesting we try to give each other therapy, but rather that we be willing to examine these issues and talk about them openly. Also we must learn ways to cope with these factors and help support one another.

Indeed I am suggesting that commitment to personal transformation is just as important as social transformation. I suggest we dedicate ourselves to living our radical values in the present tense. Not “after the revolution,” but in our everyday interactions with each other. Practicing our values in the here and now in our communications and relationships is a large part of how we consciously create the society we believe in. This is even important when we feel violated by others.

When people violate us, our reaction sets the tone for the outcome of the conflict. Setting boundaries and limits is necessary. How we do it is key. I am not proposing that we be robots devoid of feeling, but that we find a balance between what hurt and anger we may feel and the process of communicating a message. If we are too aggressive, our message will not be received.

Feedback Instead of Critiques

In order to support one another in the process of effective communication, we need to aim at giving people feedback instead of critiques. Instead of it being evaluative, it should be a reciprocal give and take.

In a relationship we must put exceedingly high expectations aside and instead try to meet people where they are at. I often see folks taking the approach of “tear them down to build them up,” which is more in line with basic boot camp in the military than with radical values. The impulse to be critical of others is counter-productive.

Being hypercritical of others is also ineffective because it shuts people down and drives them away. We want people who are open, present, and feeling good about contributing. This way we have people working together to help each other learn, grow, and expand our good work. This forms strong bonds based on mutual trust. In addition, it creates a sense of solidarity where we know we have each other’s backs, even despite differences. It does not mean we always agree or there are never conflicts. It means we choose to deal with these in a different and more effective manner. If we see people with opposing views as our “enemies,” the chances of transformational communication is very low.

Reproducing Capitalist Behavior Patterns

Microaggressions are rooted in capitalist behavior patterns. In my experience many — even on the radical left — tend to fall into old, familiar patterns.

Reproducing capitalist conditioning and programming in our actions is a real concern. These are things such as competition, aggression, superiority, domination, blame, ego-driven behaviors, as well as oppressive systems such as racism, sexism, and heteropatriarchy.

We need to be cognizant of these issues so that we are consistently evaluating them in our selves and our organizations. This process requires self-reflection and self-evaluation, and is a lot of hard work.

It means being willing to push ourselves to be uncomfortable sometimes. It means examining ourselves and being willing to risk vulnerability. It means being open to make mistakes, learning from our mistakes, and working to improve. It means practicing self-improvement in order to grow in community with others, a fierce dedication to personal transformation, and not beating ourselves up too much or getting wrapped up in guilt or shame. This also means being careful not to shame others when they hurt us.

We are all working to improve and we must give ourselves and each other room to learn. This means not jumping on people who make mistakes. It means helping folks along their journey. We cannot allow being in a dominant group, for example, to make us too paralyzed to act to support people in minority groups. We need all the participation we can get. Things like guilt and blame won’t help us make change or take positive action.

We also must give newcomers a chance to catch up and learn. Sometimes that means a young person and sometimes that means someone who is simply new to a concept. We need to help each other to raise consciousness and that will take understanding, compassion, empathy, and mentorship.

Microaggressions in Communication

Microaggressions impact our ability to be inviting towards others. Microaggressions are slights that send negative messages to oppressed groups that they are inferior or not welcomed. These often originate in stereotypes and oppressive social structures. They are often unconsciously practiced.

Microagressions manifest as general insensitivity, invalidation, or dismissiveness of another person of a particular group. When confronted, those who perpetrate microaggressions tend to claim they were simply misunderstood, were joking, that the comment was meaningless or harmless – or, worse, that the person complaining should “lighten up.”

These types of exchanges perpetuate further harm. Microaggressions can cause a range of consequences for those who they are directed at such as powerlessness, frustration, or detachment. We cannot afford for valuable members of our organization to disengage because of these sorts of behaviors. We must all become more aware of how our behaviors impact others so we can better foster inclusiveness.

Those who are the targets of microaggressions often feel the urge to correct those who use them. No one can blame a marginalized group for seeking accountability from a group with more societal power. It is extremely important in a radical organization that we allow for oppressed peoples to stand up for themselves and express justified anger, without policing their tone, particularly if that organization is made up of a majority of dominant members. However, it is also wise to practice the process of holding others accountable with care, as it is a delicate process. A foundation of respect helps us to communicate our pain effectively.

An important part of this process is realizing that while many usually have good intentions, we all make mistakes and hurt other’s feelings from time to time (and often implicit/unconscious bias plays a role, particularly in microaggressions). When this occurs, it is best that those who made the mistake recognize that they made a mistake or hurt someone’s feelings, then take responsibility for the impact of those actions. Apologize without qualification, and realize that the impact on others is more important than good intentions.

This process takes a real humbling of ourselves, as it can be hard to learn lessons through hurting others. But we can’t let feeling bad for ourselves get in the way. If we can take on this important work, we can learn and grow from these instances instead of becoming defensive.

Sadly, I have often seen people in these situations actually turn it around and blame the victim for being the source of the problem. We want to do our very best to avoid this sort of deflection. In the process we will gain more from it if we are willing to open ourselves up to deep learning and not act as if we know it all.

What can be hard is feeling like one is under a microscope, on the Internet or otherwise, and feeling judged and criticized for making a mistake. More recently, a “calling out culture” in activist circles has developed in which those feeling oppressed will call others out to try and hold them accountable for harmful actions. However, when this is done in public it can backfire because it can be shaming.

We need to work to learn new processes such as “calling-in” people. To learn more about the calling in process I recommend reading the article “Guide to Calling In,” at Everyday Feminism.

Part of this process is private messaging people, calling them on the phone, using internet/video conferencing, or trying in person to resolve conflicts using a mediator or moderator, if needed. This means making an effort to resolve heated conflicts, or taking someone aside and not talking to them in front of a group of people in order to increase privacy and decrease shame. The reason for doing this is because accountability is a vulnerable process, which needs to be undertaken with sensitivity to people’s needs and feelings.

None of us should be told to “put our feelings aside for the movement.” This attitude can empower bullies. A person within an organization who does not respect people’s feelings will often quickly decide the organization is not for them and leave. At that point it becomes self-protection. We cannot keep losing important voices we need to make our movements successful.

Avoiding Patriarchal Attitudes

We must be careful not to use patriarchal scripts and lenses to view ourselves and others. This means we don’t expect that just because we are part of a radical political organization that all of us should “man up.”

This attitude is oppressive to anyone. It buys into the idea that the political process is only for people who are unfeeling, stoic, and “thick-skinned” within a culture of harsh criticism and judgment.

The notion “if you can’t take it, you just don’t belong” is a false paradigm. It’s sexist conditioning, it’s extremely isolating, and it will drive away people we need to include. We must work to humanize our organizations, which means being open to and validating of feelings and relationships as much as reason and theory. This will allow for a full range of human traits and characteristics to find expression. Part of this process requires that we reject entitlement, privilege, and strictly enforced gender roles, and work to end paternalism, patronizing, and condescension.

The Way Forward

Going forward there are several goals to keep in mind. These include: consciously creating a comradely exchange and welcoming environment in which all feel safe; valuing and honoring all voices equally; participating and sharing without harsh judgment; being open to learning; and committing to personal growth.

The bottom line is if we commit to civil discourse to resolve conflicts, we can prevent them from spiraling out of control. If people are willing to commit to the hard work of respecting others emotional boundaries, we will do better at communicating. This is how we can work to defuse microaggressions from the start.

We can prevent microaggressions and also work towards transformation by realizing the root causes of oppression and bias and recognizing how our communication impacts each other. If we do not do so, people will need to be held accountable on a higher level. Whatever this looks like is up to each individual organization, but there must be some structure, rules, boundaries, and process of accountability.

This means behaviors are not ignored and shrugged off, but that people are held to high standards of conduct. When we join an organization as members we are agreeing to uphold the principles of that organization. And if we violate those, we should expect some sort of consequence. When there are no consequences for violations, people are more likely to continue abuse and we cannot afford that.

The true consequence for not tackling microaggressions is that our movement will become ineffective. We need to develop a culture of accountability and healthy communication. It is time for us to take on this work and dedicate ourselves to creating organizations we can all be part of, participate in fully, and feel good about.

This is the only way forward if we intend to thrive, instead of eating each other alive. Our commitment to civil discourse is a vital measure of our commitment to radical change — and imperative if we aim to grow in community together.


Tina Phillips

is a social worker who enjoys writing, advocacy, good food, and thrifting. She lives in Oakland, CA with her partner, Rachel, four cats, and their dog, Miss Piggy. You can read more of her writing on her blog at

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