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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Civil Discourse and the Language of Consent: Lessons from Aziz Ansari

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

When we talk about civil discourse, we often hear that term as a call to discuss controversial topics with a level of tact and grace that dignifies and respects our conversational counterpart. We think of it as the anecdote for hostile territory, as a way to engage with our opposition in a mature and peaceful manner. But civil discourse is a salve for more than just contentious debate in the public sphere or heated political argument. It is a way of being with one another—of knowing, supporting, listening to and caring for those both within our communities and outside of them.

This means that civil discourse is not just something that exists within the context of debate, or in the realm of blatant argument. It has a place in our personal lives, too— even in the absence of political discord or religious dispute. It has a place in any situation where two human beings are in relationship with each other, in any space, at any time, in any conversation. And if civil discourse has a place not just in formal debate but in private, trusting conversations and in quiet, subtle exchanges, then it most certainly has a place in the bedroom.

Sure, “civil discourse” might not be the sexiest way to talk about the dos and don’ts of doin’ it, but it does provide a useful framework for talking about the nuance of consent. When Babe magazine published an article earlier this month detailing one woman’s account of a troubling sexual encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari, readers were confounded over how they should respond. Was it assault? Was it an innocent misunderstanding? Most seemed to find that the truth lingered somewhere in between the two, obfuscated in the murky waters of semi-consensual sex. It is here, in this gray area between “yes” and “no” that civil discourse becomes a useful tool for navigating conversations in our personal lives as well as in the public sphere.

Civil discourse is, at its core, about overcoming polarities and coming to a state of mutual understanding. It is about speaking candidly and freely, as well as listening openly and honestly. It is about pursuing the path to mutual understanding rather than manipulating, coercing, harassing, or degrading the opposing side. These are behaviors that, if modeled in the bedroom, have the capacity to enrich and embolden the language of consent. They are behaviors that make us pause in our actions to ask questions of our partner, to bear witness to their verbal and nonverbal communication, and to make an earnest effort to understand what they’re thinking and feeling.

It may be tempting to think of civil discourse as something reserved solely for the political sphere, and to brush off the notion that it has any relevance in our private lives. But in a time where we have made women’s bodies into political spaces, civil discourse is most certainly not exempt from the bedroom.

Jan 29, 2018

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