I was recently in a conversation with a friend who had a visceral reaction to the word “socialism.” I was hoping to engage in a conversation about what one of the current presidential candidates was promoting: “democratic socialism”—but my friend would have none of it. She clearly had an emotional impediment to even discussing it. I wondered why that was.
In my experience, sometimes we condition ourselves by tuning into certain forms of dialogue which resort to vilifying or demonizing certain points of view, without actually engaging the content of those views. When this happens, certain words or phrases can set one off emotionally, and an instant guard goes up as “danger” alarm bells go off in one’s head.
This recent engagement reminded me that now more than ever we need to learn to move beyond demonization into genuine engagement and conversation. In this engagement with my friend, I wasn’t planning to ask her to support a specific candidate or platform, I simply wanted to discuss this particular idea, an idea that many western European nations of which employ some form. Hardly the kind of stuff that ought to frighten one into avoiding discussing the idea altogether.
When such irrational fears are triggered, it ironically betrays a lack of confidence in one’s own positions, or lack of confidence in the reasons one hold’s one’s position(s). In other words, if your view on any given topic is the best or truest view, you should have no reason to fear conversation on the subject. Yet this fear of the other permeates so much of our political and religious dialogue.
How do we begin to move forward into these important conversations in our increasingly globalized world? The ability to engage in civil discourse requires a level of discipline, practice and intentionality. Here are ten principles – with significant overlap — to keep in mind when engaging in dialogue with someone who holds a different perspective:
- Civil discourse is built on the foundational truth of recognizing the humanity and image of God in the other. If we truly believe that the one we are speaking with reflects the divine, then this should cause a wellspring of profound respect and anticipation of what God might teach us in the encounter. Of all places, Christian community ought to be the safest place to be able to disagree without being so disagreeable, given the espousal of this foundational truth.
- Give people the benefit of the doubt rather than categorically demonizing them. Up front, we must trust that the will of the other is to truly seek what is best for the common good. As such we must recognize that our tendency toward tribalism often builds walls around our assumptions and automatically classifies any ideas outside those walls as bad or wrong. To this end, we must avoid name-calling, personal attacks and unhelpful labeling.
- Make listening, learning, and empathy a priority. Each of us has been shaped by the people and experiences we have encountered on our journey, and as such we have something to learn from our encounters with the other. This ought to be considered a gift! We can’t learn unless we first learn to listen. If we can come to a place of genuine understanding of the other, we will be able to empathize with and understand the impetus behind their position, even if we don’t agree with it. Before criticizing the position of the other, we ought to be able to express their position clearly, vividly and fairly. Clarification and genuine understanding has the power to erase our tendency to dismiss and demonize.
- It’s important to base our discussions on factual information. We must always do the work of finding the truth rather than relying on biased, simplistic sound bites as the basis for what informs your worldview. Realize that mainstream news sources often have their own slanted perspective and agendas. Allow reality to correct misperceptions. Seek out fact-checking websites. There is greater wisdom in knowing if you are uninformed and being willing to be corrected than there is in continuing to make arguments for positions based on fallacies. Admitting we are wrong, obviously requires some humility.
- A little humility goes a long way. Recognize that what any one person can know is limited. Other voices are necessary and important, and we should be sure to mention any things we have learned from the one we are in dialogue with. Collectively we can understand more and work more effectively for the betterment of this world. It’s advantageous to the community to allow a variety of voices and perspectives to pull up a chair and join the conversation.
- Recognize the ways in which experiences shape worldview, and that each worldview has limitations. We can’t effectively bring in the Kingdom of God where the common good can flourish if we don’t seek a variety of perspectives that help shed light on giving us a fuller picture of reality. Each of us has been on a journey that has shaped our perspective. If we dismiss other perspectives or rely solely on our own, we may be dismissing very real repercussions of the truth of the matter at hand.
- Build relationships with those who hold differing views. It’s a great blessing to have regular conversations with people who see and understand the world differently than we do. Expanding, broadening, and enlightening our own perspective by bringing others alongside can lead to a fuller and more generous understanding. Likewise, being in relationship with the other becomes a consistent reminder of the humanity of the other as well as the story of the other, and it decreases our tendency to generalize and demonize. A generous and welcoming attitude is a basic courtesy that is essential to healthy community.
- Test your assumptions. It’s healthy for the things we assume to be tested. Dialoguing with people who hold different views sometimes it helps us to realize things we may have wrongly assumed. Similarly, it often affirms some of the things we have rightly assumed. If we are indeed after the truth of the matter, we should embrace the practice of testing our assumptions.
- Remember the golden rule. We must reflect the Bible’s call to show respect for others, and in every way treat those we encounter in the same way we would like to be treated. A posture of loving and gracious hospitality to the words, thoughts and ideas of the one we are engaging might be the very thing that draws them in to hearing our perspective as well.
- Shout silently. The way in which we approach dialogue speaks louder than our words. The manner in which we engage others is just as important as the content of our dialogue. Through the posture of genuine and deep listening, the walls may come down and we may discover that we actually share more common ground with the other than we ever imagined or anticipated.
In the heat of an election year in the USA when debate and emotions are often running high, we are invited to intentionally strive to posture our dialogue in such a way that reflects the Jesus we seek to follow. So friends, be generous. Be gracious. Be humble. Be loving. Be excellent to one another.