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Perspectives on Civility: Resources

How to speak your mind without losing friends

When our group met with the Calvin Alumni Association Board, one of the questions that was raised was, "How do I talk about politics with people in my church?" A snarky answer might be "Don't do it," but we wanted to supply a more helpful answer to this question, even if ultimately the answer in many situations is still "Avoid the situation if you can." Drawing on our discussions, our readings and other resources, we have assembled both a set of principles that Christians should try to follow when engaging in civil dialogue and a few specific suggestions for how to approach a conversation with honesty as well as kindness.

Overarching principles

  • Knowledge

Deepen your understanding of an issue by using books, articles, lectures and other media to learn more. Rely on experts who are credible to inform your perspective. History is an especially important discipline for gaining perspective on issues that often transcend the current moment. Some good sources to check political information include www.politifact.com and www.factcheck.org

  • Civility

Try to listen first and make mutual understanding a goal of the discussion rather than the impulse to win the debate. Being right has an addictive quality that can make it dangerous. Ask yourself, "Am I extending to this person the sort of respect that I would like to be given? If I am not being given respect, can I model that anyway?" By moving away from the idea of 'winning or losing' an argument, you can focus instead on mutual understanding.

  • Openness

Ask yourself if you are also open to really considering a different point of view. Try to learn something new each time you talk with someone who has a different perspective. Don't be satisfied with simply making your point and walking away without adding to your own knowledge base, even if what you come away with is just a better understanding of another viewpoint.

  • Compassion

Increasingly we live in a country - and world - with diverse peoples and points of view. Our country was founded on principles of religious tolerance, and it's critical that we really try to stand in the shoes of 'the other.' We have all heard of the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but you might also consider what has been termed the Platinum Rule, "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them."

  • Engagement

Find a role model who performs civil discourse the way you'd like to imitate. This person may not be a national political figure. Get involved with organizations or activities that impact issues you care about. Attend lectures and debates, take an adult education class, go to a rally or march. The website http://civilpolitics.org/content/things-you-can-do has some good suggestions, such as volunteering or inviting others to dialogue over a meal, for how to make connections with people who might have a different experience from you.

  • Love Your Enemies

Really try to put into practice the words from the Sermon on the Mount. Political dialogue is an opportunity to treat others with love and respect. It is more important to act right than to be right. Politics is one area where it might be more difficult to build and maintain character traits such as kindness and generosity, but it may also be where they are most vital.

  • Realism

Remember that the political process is not always the best forum for accomplishing change in society. There are other venues. For example, a business or association, a nonprofit organization or a church might better address a problem. Also, in politics, often someone wins and someone else loses, especially when it comes to elections. Learn to win and lose graciously, and don't exaggerate the importance of one election or issue.

  • Resilience

Not everyone will engage civilly. Develop the ability to separate yourself from your ideas. Be willing to call a foul, and then move on and not dwell on it.

Specific Conversational Strategies

Given these principles, we can use specific communication strategies to help communicate our respect to others and maximize our opportunities for productive dialogue and learning from each other.

  • Talk to people, not strawmen

It's difficult to begin a civil discussion when you tell somebody else what they think. Instead, ask someone why they support a policy or how they make sense of conflicting values. The next two suggestions are variations on this theme.

  • Don't Generalize

You are much more likely to be fair or right when you talk about a specific policy proposal or at least a specific issue. People can easily talk past each other when you use words like "always" or "everyone." Similarly, think in the long term. Something you perceive as a contemporary anomaly might have a long historical precedent, and something you think has always been the case may really have begun less than 100 years ago.

  • Ask clarifying questions

Sometimes there's two ways to respond to what seems like a preposterous position. "How could you possibly say that ____?" is much more hostile-sounding than "____ makes it sound like you believe ______. Is that what you mean?" This tactic accomplishes the same challenge, but invites the other person to explain themselves or maybe see their statements from your perspective. Similarly, describe what you see and hear rather than how you interpret it. Rather than "you're getting really angry," say "your face is becoming more flushed and you're stomping your foot a lot, what's going on with you?"

  • Own your perspective, but be open to changing

"As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another" (Prov. 27:17). Interactions with other people are opportunities on both sides. You want to represent your experiences and opinions faithfully so your interlocutor can learn from you. You should also be open to the possibility that the engagement will cause you to change or adjust your position. If you find yourself always assuming you will be the iron sharpening someone else, rethink that assumption.

  • Know the difference between a debate and a waste of time

Some interactions are fruitful, and others just aren't. If you sense yourself getting angrier and don't feel you are being heard, sometimes it's best to just leave the subject be. There are reasons etiquette guidelines suggest not bringing up politics in a polite conversation. "Do not throw your pearls to pigs" (Matt. 7:6)--and also make sure you aren't being the pig.

  • Look for common ground

Maybe you and a friend will never agree on gay marriage, abortion or tax policy, but you might be able to get together and lobby for a local issue you agree on. Don't prevent yourself from working with others or sharing a common goal even if you disagree about some things, even if those things are fundamental to your political beliefs.

Conclusion

Finally, always remember that democracy isn't about checklists. It's about listening, learning and really engaging with your fellow citizens. Hopefully, the goal of discussion about political (and social and economic) issues is, ultimately, to establish a "more perfect union."

 

Upcoming Event

October 4, 2012; 4 p.m.
Panel discussion with group members in the Commons Lecture Hall. Refreshments and lively discussion provided. Contact sbuist@calvin.edu for more information.
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Civility