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Why Our Political Discussions Fail

Our current political discussions fail on a consistent basis and seem to get us nowhere.

Lately, when I hear people from two different political persuasions discuss a sensitive political topic, it most often devolves into name-calling, interrupting, shouting, sarcasm, disrespect, and general rudeness and hostility.

Where Has All the Civil Public Discourse Gone?

And it isn’t just normal, every day people who have these problems. It is also our politicians, our religious leaders, and our news anchors and radio broadcast moderators who have these problem. It seems like the very folks who should be most able to engage in civil public discourse seem increasingly unable to do so. And many of us, regular folks, are increasingly unable to do so as well.

The problem is not that we aren’t nice. Niceness is overrated, and sometimes harsh realities call for direct and bracing dialogue.

Rather, the problem is that increasingly we seem to be unable to listen, to try to understand, to exercise empathy, or to see the humanity in one another.

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This political morass is unwise and unnecessary. It is possible for us to benefit from different views rather than feel automatically threatened by them.

For example, I consider myself lucky to have friends and family members from a wide variety of political perspectives. This enriches my life. I know both conservatives and liberals (and also libertarians and anarchists) who are deeply moral, religious, thoughtful, intelligent, loving people.

So, it really concerns me when I hear people tossing about phrases like “godless liberals”, “ignorant republicans”, “immoral democrats”, “extremist conservatives”, and all the many other generalizing insults I hear people from all over the political spectrum hurl at the “opposition”. They are misrepresenting people I know and love.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there are godless liberals*, ignorant republicans, immoral democrats, and extremist conservatives. After all, I have met folks who fit all these descriptions.

My concern is that increasingly in our political discourse, we approach political conversations having already made up our mind about the issues at hand. And it seems we have also made up our mind about all of the other people involved in the discussion.

So, increasingly we seem unable to entertain the idea that people who think differently than we do could possibly have logical, moral, and thoughtful reasons for why they believe the way they do.

As a result, it seems that we preemptively divide people into two camps. There are the people who think like us (and are right). And there are the people who don’t think like us (and are wrong).

And we enter political discussions with guns blazing. The end result increasingly is that we destroy one another and the possibility of a public square for civil discourse.

This trend in our public dialogue concerns me for many reasons. But one of the reasons it concerns me is that I teach logic to middle school, high school, and college students. One of the first lessons I teach them is that the primary purpose of learning logic is not to win arguments (or to destroy your opponent). The primary purpose of learning logic is to learn how better to pursue wisdom and understanding.

I absolutely believe this. And I think that probably most of us, if we think about it, agree with this sentiment. Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to teach students this lesson when all around them they see people engaging in political debates, not to understand one another better, but to beat each other into a bloody pulp (metaphorically speaking).

If we care about raising a generation that can engage in meaningful, empathetic, compassionate, and rational dialogue, we must do a much better job of modeling the good behavior we wish the next generation to develop.

Our failure in public dialogue concerns me for another reason, though.  We are a democratic nation. And that means that we believe in deliberating together to create a nation that makes everyone’s lives better and more humane.

Granted, we have done a horrible job of living up to this ideal many times throughout our history. But it is hard to dispute that this is, indeed, one of the highest ideals of our nation.

I am afraid that we are increasingly abandoning this ideal.

If we abandon it, we will no longer work to create a better life for everyone. Instead, we will focus on creating a better life just for the people who think like us and look like us. And we stop caring about everyone else.

I don’t see this taking us in a good direction, do you?

Three Things We Can Do

This problem in our political discourse is a problem that I cannot address fully in one blog post. However, I would like to make three brief suggestions that will help our public discourse tremendously:

1. We must stop using negative and derogatory generalizations to refer to people who think differently than we do about politics: Now, of course, sometimes it is appropriate to call people “Republicans”, “Conservatives”, “Democrats”, “Liberals”, and it is possible to use generalizing labels like this without using them in any kind of derogatory manner.

However, when we start using derogatory generalizations like “godless liberal”, “ignorant Republican”, etc., or when we use labels to dismiss an entire group of people, we are walking down a really foolish path.

When we use generalizations  dismissively like this, we suggest that we know every single person who fits in the generalization and that none of them have anything worthwhile to say.

We suggest further that none of them really deserve to be treated with basic, human respect.

All of these assumptions are foolish and disrespectful.

You can read more about this here:

Dismissing People as Liberal or Conservative Is Unwise

2. Realize that no matter who we are, we still have something to learn. It doesn’t matter if we are a Christian (and I am a Christian) or if we have a bunch of degrees or whatever. We are neither omniscient nor infinite. And this mean that we still have stuff to learn–probably a lot of stuff to learn. So, we need to spend just as much, if not more, time listening as we do talking.

We need to keep seeking out opinions that are very different from our own because this is how we learn and grow.

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This brings me to my next point…

3. Talk to people instead of about them. We need to stop talking about Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals, and we need to talk to them.  We need to listen to them. And we need to treat them like human beings. We need to learn to see things from other people’s perspective, even if we ultimately disagree with them.**

I can speak pretty authoritatively on this issue. For a large part of my life, I spent a lot of time talking about different kinds of people that I had actually never met. And then one day, I started going to school and riding the bus, living in the same neighborhood, and forming friendships with the people I had spent so many years talking about (but had never spoken to.)

I realized that for the most part, I did not know what I was talking about. And so I spent a lot more time listening and much less time talking. I am a better Christian (by this I think I treat people more like Jesus would) and a more compassionate and loving person because of it.

There is Hope

I teach ethics at a local college, and the other week in class, we were discussing Paulo Freire’s classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This is usually considered an education, rather than an ethics, text. But in my opinion, it lays out a powerful description for a loving way of life that leads to greater humanization (a fuller and more powerful way of life) for everyone.

(You can read more about this book and Freire’s life here: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed—Chapter One.)

In this book, Freire suggests that the task of human beings is to observe the world around them, to note problems in the world that oppress and dehumanize people, and then to take responsibility to transform the world for greater humanization for everyone. This is the task of everyone, and when we engage in this task together, we create a powerful world that promotes the flourishing of everyone.

One day after we had finished discussing Freire, two of my students approached me after class. These students are from two different ethnic groups. And they told me that they had realized that they view the world really differently. They also said that they realized  that if they were going to transform the world for greater humanization for everyone, they had to understand each other better.

So one day they decided to meet after class and talk about their different worldviews. They wanted to try to understand and empathize with each other. Apparently the discussion went well because they were really jazzed about it. And their faces lit up as they described their experience to me.

(Update: I recently ran into one of these students who told me she was going to graduate school to study the cause of extreme political polarization and various ways we can remedy this problem.)

This was a really cool outcome of class, and it certainly isn’t typical for all of my classes. But it gave me hope.

It is possible that some people (maybe a lot of people) will stay locked in patterns of aggression, enmity, and political competition. But I think more and more of us are realizing that we are in political gridlock. I think we are also realizing that the only way out of this gridlock is by practicing listening, understanding, humility, curiosity, and love.

These students were a beautiful example of this to me. But I think many other people are taking up these same practices.  Let’s you and I take them up, too.

Listening, understanding, humility, curiosity, love. 



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You might also enjoy this book: The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear

And this documentary: The Reunited States


*Please note that my use of the phrase “godless liberals” is not meant as a criticism to folks who do not believe in God. Rather, I am using it as an example of destructive political generalizations I hear bandied about.

**I realize that there are some people that we don’t need to listen to. There are some people who are so clearly immoral or irrational or close-minded that it is usually a waste of time listening to them. I could tell you who I think these kinds of folks are. Certainly I have my opinions. But that is not really my job.

That’s something you have to figure out. I will suggest, however, that probably if you do not want to listen to anyone who thinks differently from you, that is probably not a wise choice. When  we make such a choice, we are saying something like this: “Everyone who thinks differently from me is wrong.” That is putting ourselves in the position of God, more or less.

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