The other day an old friend invited me to dialogue, knowing we have different worldviews. He said he picked me because he thinks I respect people even when their views are different from my own. I sure hope I can live up to his opinion of me. I was encouraged to see that he understands the importance of respectful discourse, because most of us in America have similar goals, we just disagree on how to get there. I think we can learn how to dialogue without making personal attacks or “unfriending” people just because they challenge our opinions, even though it is evident from listening to talk shows and reading comment threads online that we don’t teach or practice the art of public discourse anymore. I believe it is possible to correct this problem and recover (or perhaps, rediscover) this lost art.
Having our opinions challenged and having to defend them helps us see where there may be flaws in our basic assumptions. This is not for the faint of heart though! We need to have the courage to speak up, the wisdom to know when it’s appropriate to speak up, the humility to recognize our own inconsistencies, and the willingness to change our minds when necessary. Public discourse can help us clarify our opinions so we know why we believe what we believe. It can also strengthen our resolve to live by our convictions, knowing they are right even when they are unpopular. But of course this can only happen when we respect each other, and resist the temptation to audaciously demand everyone believe and act the way we do.
How to respectfully discuss ideas
One of the things that helped me learn how to respectfully disagree with people was high school debate class. Along with the debate techniques I also learned a few principles that help keep dialogue going. Here are a few:
• Don’t take yourself too seriously. We all need to remember that we have limitations. Even the smartest among us is still human and can be wrong sometimes. Other people know things we don’t know and we can learn from them, even when we disagree.
• Don’t take it personally. When people disagree with us it’s easy to feel offended, but it’s best not to assume they mean it as a personal attack, unless you know you are dealing with a bully, which is a different situation.
• Listen. Sometimes the biggest mistake we make is to assume we know what someone believes and then form our argument based on that assumption instead actually listening to them. I’ve been guilty of this once or twice, O.K. a lot, everyday in fact. My wife will start to tell me something and I’ll guess what her point is and start running my mouth about it, and half an hour later look over at her and realize she’s giving me “the look.” Oops! Time to shut up and apologize. When I finally let her tell me what she was trying to say in the first place it turns out to very different from what I was thinking. Another mistake we make when it comes to listening is shutting down the dialogue before it begins. Someone brings up a topic, maybes it’s a sensitive one, and we don’t even want to hear it because it might upset us, but that’s not how we become better people.
• Admit it when you don’t know something. We hate losing a debate or sounding ignorant, but if you really don’t know what you’re talking about, admit it before someone calls you on it and makes you look like a fool. I’ve had the embarrassment of realizing that my opinion was based on assumptions with little to no evidence. The worst thing I could do at that point is ignore the evidence. Listening and learning makes us better people.
• Agree to disagree. You won’t always convince people to agree with you, but that’s not the point of respectful public discourse. Here’s the deal folks, I’m a Christian but I don’t have to work only through my church or another faith based group to help provide food, clothing, and shelter to needy people. The point is we don’t have to agree on everything in order work together toward common goals.
As more people practice these principles our society will be better off for it. It starts with us. We can be the ones who show respect and teach others to do the same, like my friend. I am grateful that he stepped up to make a difference instead of just complaining about the problem.