We are quickly approaching an Orwellian society absent of free speech. Though we don’t have an official thought police, yet, people act like they wear the badge. It seems the highest guiding ethic of our time is “Agree with me or else!” All parties are to blame here: Republican and Democrat, Pro-choice and Pro-life, Believer and Atheist, etc. and so on. We are all guilty. Social media seems to bring out the worst in all of us.
I get that there are certain beliefs that are so personal that we feel attacked when someone challenges our viewpoint. But we need free speech, and we need a nation of listeners. We don't need to be protected from ideas that threaten our own. Progress is always thwarted when opposing viewpoints are ignored or worse silenced. So in the hope (perhaps it is a naive hope) that we don’t want a society absent of free speech because we desire progress and freedom, here are just three ways to graciously and effectively talk about potentially contentious positions.
1. DON’T ASSUME THE OTHER PERSON IS A LAZY, IGNORANT IDIOT.
Seems like common sense, right? You shouldn’t expect a good conversation when you begin by calling the other person dumb. Now of course there are plenty of lazy, ignorant idiotic people in the world, but why do you assume the person you are talking with is that person? Why do so many conversations begin with something like, “If you would just read the Bible…”? Do we really believe that the only reason anyone could think differently than us is because they are obviously too lazy and willfully ignorant to have not read on the subject?
If you want people to respect your words, avoid condescension. It’s quite belittling to assume that someone doesn’t think like you because they’ve not taken the time to study the issue. This is just an intellectually lazy way to engage an issue. Don’t do it. Rather, afford people the courtesy of assuming they’ve studied the issue and have a reason for their belief. Then, ask some questions to find out their level of understanding. This is good for the conversation because it gives you an appropriate starting point. But it’s also good for you. If you keep accusing people of ignorance, there will come a time when someone calls your bluff and lists off a host of sources on the topic that you’ve not read. What are you going to do then besides look like a blabbering hack?
2. DON’T ASSUME THE OTHER PERSON IS AN UN-CHRISTIAN, RACIST NAZI.
I love it when someone calls me evil because I don’t endorse their particular view of morality or their political agenda. Actually, I admit it. That is why I think like I think and not like you. I am Satan and I hate people. Seriously though, how many conversations have you been a part of where that’s the accusation? I'm sure you've heard something like, “If you really loved people you would support X.” Or, “If you were really a Christian you would vote for Y.” Do we really believe that people only think differently than us because they are rotten, foul monsters?
If you want to have an effective and persuasive conversation, avoid slandering people by attacking their character. Most people are good. They are decent people that love their kids, their neighbors, and their country. Respect people by assuming they are motivated by good intentions, and ask questions to uncover their motives rather than accuse. But let’s be careful here. A person’s position is not wrong just because their motivation is wrong. It’s best just to avoid character assassinations as they are merely rhetorical stunts that may sway an audience but do not prove you are right. Ad hominem attacks are very useful when you need to change the topic, and they are used by the people that know they will be beaten in a debate if the issue takes center stage.
3. DON’T ASSUME YOU HAVE MASTERED THE TOPIC.
I know you just finished freshman psychology and the table of contents on that book and all. But you don’t know everything. You have been wrong before. You were wrong about something yesterday. Embrace this reality and embody more humility in your conversations. You are not fooling anyone by pretending to be the expert. No some of you are, fair enough. But even experts aren’t experts in all things, and eventually we all find ourselves in conversations that are out of our field. Humility is required by us all.
If you want people to listen to you, avoid patronizing them by lecturing like an expert. People can spot a phony a mile away and won’t be persuaded just because you seem like a know-it-all. Moreover, you should leave room in your mind for growth. Take seriously the objections to your position and study more. Reflect on the challenges you have been presented. In so doing, you will either grow more confident and competent in your position, or you will change your position in light of compelling reasons. And with this disposition, you also increase the chance that you won’t come across as a pompous you-know-what.
Let us all seek the betterment of our society through gracious and free speech. Love your neighbor by respecting them in conversation. And please notice your hypocrisy. You cannot condemn someone for being unloving as you slander them. You cannot call for tolerance as you seek to silence the opposing voice. And you cannot call for progress while you never entertain an opposing view.
I am optimistic. Our humanity is a great gift. Let us use our wit and intelligence and passion to seek the good of others. And may that commitment extend to our conversations with people that do not share our views. May we all profit from the fruitful conversations that will follow.