4 Small Steps You Can Take To Keep Public Discourse Civil

4 Small Steps You Can Take To Keep Public Discourse Civil

Politics isn’t the only sphere where you can influence the world, and fostering healthy friendships is an important part of making our country a better place to live.
Mary C. Tillotson
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As if Lucille Bluth were pulling strings in the background, 1 in 14 Americans has apparently lost a friend over this election. While this year seems especially awful, 7 percent seems to be a fairly stable number of friendships fracturing during election years.

Somehow, only 70 percent of respondents say this year’s election has brought out the worst in people. Maybe that’s because fully 30 percent “feel that the harsh language used in politics today” is justified.

It’s unfortunate, because if there’s one thing we ought to be able to agree on, it’s that we could use a little more civility in our civic conversations. So here’s a guide I hope people on both sides of the aisle—and anywhere in between—can use to keep their conversations civil, their friendships intact, and, therefore, their country strong.

1. Believe in Good Intentions

Consider this thought experiment. A man is driving down a rural highway late at night in a rainstorm, when he sees a car hydroplane and crash. He pulls over and sees an injured woman inside. He calls 911, then pulls her from the wreck and begins CPR.

He’s never been trained in CPR, and he knows he shouldn’t trust what he’s seen on movies, but the situation is obviously dire and he can’t just leave her there without doing something. The ambulance arrives and takes the woman to the hospital, where she later dies, in part because of injuries from the CPR attempt. How do you explain this situation?

a) The man had good intentions, and that’s admirable. It’s sad that he didn’t know basic first aid and CPR, because the situation probably would have turned out a lot differently. I bet he’ll sign up for the next class as soon as he can, just in case this happens again.

b) SEXISM!

This is the first important principle of civility: believe in good intentions. Even when people are objectively wrong, like the man attempting CPR, they probably have good intentions underlying their opinions. That doesn’t make them right, but it does make them worth respecting and listening to.

At the root of nearly every political opinion is an axiom like this: “Some bad things exist which are making life unnecessarily/inappropriately difficult and unfair for some people, and I think that needs to change.”

Of course there’s more to your analysis of the issues and candidates than that, but isn’t it true about your opinions on abortion, immigration, and Black Lives Matter? It’s true about your interlocutor’s opinions about abortion, immigration, and Black Lives Matter. Believe that. Say it. Find your common ground there. Be open and explicit about it.

Only after that should you begin talking about your disagreements.

2. Keep an Open Mind and Reject Polarization

Conservative Christians sometimes balk at the idea of an open mind, citing a famous line from G.K. Chesterton: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” This is often taken to mean, “I’ve thought about it, and I believe what is true, and I don’t need to listen to anyone anymore.”

But that’s a totally inappropriate way of talking about politics—and eating. If you keep your mouth shut and never open it, you will starve. Likewise with opinions: if you never honestly consider others’ opinions, your mind will shrink and become its own little echo chamber.

Listen to your interlocutor. Plan to learn something. Put yourself in his or her shoes and consider a perspective you hadn’t thought about before. Maybe there is a valid concern that you weren’t aware of and is bringing you to different conclusions. That may be true vice versa, as well. Political issues are complicated, and different policies affect different people in different ways.

Perhaps one person’s sister was killed by an illegal immigrant trying to expand his drug empire into the United States, and another person’s sister was killed in her home country, while waiting on her delayed visa paperwork, by someone trying to expand his drug empire there. Both these situations are tragic. Instead of running away with logic or emotion about how one of those deaths doesn’t matter, consider a way to address, or at least acknowledge, both concerns.

Most people with opinions about abortion, to use another example, don’t hate women or babies. Consider how much you would resent it if you were pigeonholed into one of those extremes, and resist the desire to pigeonhole your interlocutor.

Listen, and while you’re listening, pay attention; don’t dilute your attentiveness by looking for logical holes in the argument. An appropriate listening attitude is something like: “I believe we both have good intentions, but you and I have come to different conclusions. I’m interested to know how you’re thinking about this, and how your thinking is different from mine.”

3. Remember Your Priorities

Why are you even having this conversation? Consider whether your friendship or your political opinions are more important. Is your friend’s one vote going to change the course of American history? For that matter, is your friend likely to vote the way you vote after you’ve fallen out over politics? If anything, I would expect your friend to be less likely to agree with you after a fight.

Think about why you’re friends. Think about how much you enjoy watching football together, or how much less work it was to move because you had an extra set of hands (and how willing you are to return the favor). Would our country really be better if your favored policies were in place but nobody had any friends?

Remember your own good intentions. This isn’t about winning a verbal battle with someone, but about building a good place to live. You have your political opinions because you believe, if enacted, these policies would make the country a better place—because you want our country to be a better place. But politics isn’t the only sphere where you can influence the world, and fostering healthy friendships is an important part of making our country a better place to live.

Sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—it’s better to “agree to disagree.” If the conversation is becoming tense and turning into less “Let’s consider together the best ways to influence our country for good” and more “me versus you” or even “I’m right and you’re stupid,” maybe it’s time for a break.

A woman I know once told me about the first fight she had with her husband. He told her, “I’m mad at you right now, but I made a commitment to you, and we’re going to work this out.” They did. They’ve been happily married for almost 40 years.

Take a similar attitude toward your friendships. Change the subject. Do whatever it is you guys like to do together—make pizza, watch the football game, swap stories of kids being ridiculous. Say something like, “Hey, I think it’s obvious that we disagree, but maybe we should have that conversation another time. How’s work going?”

4. Keep It Off Facebook

If you’re going to post a meme about the election, it better be this one.

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Mary C. Tillotson is a freelance writer who lives in Michigan.
Photo Wikimedia

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