Civil public discourse is becoming a lost art.
This negative trend is exacerbated by social media platforms on which anyone, anywhere, anytime can express their opinion (informed, uninformed or misinformed) and where diatribe is replacing discussion.
Oversimplification, feeling-driven statements, sound bites, one-liners and snarky, dismissive responses drive our public discourse while rational, detailed, fact-based, nuanced conversations become the exception not the rule.
Social media is not the problem. As a tool for connectivity and information sharing, it is amoral.
How people use these communication channels is where moral and ethical concerns arise, and we are collectively using them very poorly.
Most often people talk at, rather than with, one another in online forums, while logical fallacies (most prominently attacking people rather than engaging their views) and sensationalism (“can you believe so and so said or did such and such?!”) predominate.
As I wrote several years ago, “Anytime I have found myself becoming overly optimistic or moving toward a ‘Pollyannaish’ perspective on the human condition, a brief visit to the comments section of almost any website has provided ample evidence to confirm the biblical witness about humanity’s sinfulness.”
There are exceptions, but it is rare to see rational, civil discourse online. Is it even possible for these platforms to facilitate substantive, civil conversation?
Sadly, many political leaders are failing to set positive examples.
President Trump is well-known for using Twitter to make strong, often controversial, pronouncements on both mundane and momentous issues. It’s troubling that we might be living in a world in which one tweet could start nuclear war.
While the president might be the most glaring example currently, he is not alone among political leaders who use social media in less than helpful ways.
Moreover, if you tune in to CSPAN’s live stream of the U.S. Congress, at some point you’ll see elected leaders delivering addresses that are, in theory, a discussion of proposed legislation with other elected representatives but are actually “stump speeches” addressed to their supporters.
It is rare to see U.S. public discourse, whether virtual or in person, taking the form of “come let us reason together.”
Yet, we cannot lament this situation without also recognizing our own complicity in contributing to it.
In his book “World Order,” Henry Kissinger observed, “New methods of accessing and communicating information unite regions as never before and project events globally – but in a manner that inhibits reflection, demanding of leaders that they register instantaneous reactions in a form expressible in slogans.”
As a general rule, responses to issues, trends and events can be both thoughtful and timely, but they should not be overly terse or expressed before gathering, assessing and reflecting on the available data.
Issues, like people, are not simple. They require significant effort and care to understand.
Reducing complex challenges to one-liners, tweeted declarations and overly simplistic analyses usually reveals a lack of understanding or humility (or a willful choice to misrepresent or misinform for personal, professional or partisan gain).
Christians should model a different, more constructive approach rooted in civility. Here are five questions that can help guide us:
1. Do I have enough information on the issue about which I’m voicing an opinion?
Relying on sound bites, campaign-style statements, “click bait” headlines and second-hand information isn’t sufficient.
Seek out reliable information from trusted sources. Read the available data and formulate your own perspective before reading someone else’s “take” on the topic.
2. Have I sought to listen to contrasting perspectives?
Be aware of echo chambers that prevent us from encountering people who think differently. Intentionally seek out other viewpoints and attempt to understand both an alternate perspective and why the person or group holds it.
Not all views should be given equal weight, but awareness of the different perspectives is important.
3. Am I being charitable toward those holding a view different than mine?
The late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg shaped his dissertation based on a question posed by his adviser. “Let’s assume that the Pharisees were not hypocrites – that they were not bad people, but good people, virtuous and devout. What then was the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about?”
Taking a similar approach when we encounter people with different perspectives than our own usually enhances the quality and tone of our discourse.
4. Am I using logical fallacies when discussing issues?
Purdue University’s writing lab lists and explains a variety of logical fallacies that appear frequently in our public discourse. Take time to learn these fallacies and avoid using them.
5. To paraphrase one of my seminary professors: Do you want to get your message said or to get it heard?
Your argument might be logically consistent and based on verified facts, but if you want to change hearts and minds you must consider how you communicate. A negative tone of voice and arrogant or dismissive attitude, no matter how many facts support your view, will further entrench those holding another position.
Challenging people of faith to advance the common good informs and inspires our work at EthicsDaily.com. These days, calling for and encouraging civility seems to be of utmost importance in this endeavor. Won’t you join us?