Over the past decade, the quality of American discourse has fallen to an all-time low. This is not a controversial statement – it has been echoing throughout our culture for some time now.
No, the controversy begins when you attempt to figure out why – and everyone thinks they know who to blame: communists, fascists, late-stage capitalism, social media, big business, the GOP, Democrats – the list never ends. Instead, I propose something much more straightforward and closer to home: We have lost the principle of charity.
What is “charity” in the context of discussions? Simply put, charity is actively encouraging and helping your opponents. It is treating them with kindness and assuming good intentions. It is listening to their ideas and attacking their position, but never their character.
I will restate the obvious: American political discourse has lost any semblance of charity and has bled into every aspect of our lives. A large percentage of both parties view the other as a danger to the country, and both sides increasingly refuse to date, be friends with or associate in any way with the opposing side of the aisle. Our landscape is rife with ideologies that inherently assume ill-intent into its opponents. Both online and off, we have become quick to anger and slow to listen. Our conversations are now gladiatorial death matches where only one thing matters: Destruction of the enemy by any means necessary.
I don’t know how to fix or control our national discourse. However, I can control my actions – and you can control yours too. There are some simple tactics you can put in place to start improving your own discussions.
Firstly, define, define, define. When beginning any potential disagreement, I first say, “What do you mean by that?” or “How so?” Both phrases invite the other person to clarify their beliefs without attacking them. This preemptively stops a “definition” argument, where people argue in circles because they use the same words to mean different things. Before you ever start attacking a position, you should be able to fully articulate the position yourself. An excellent strategy to ensure everyone is on the same page is to ask, “If I understand you right, you are saying…” and then state their position.
Secondly, you must take the characters of all involved out of the discussion. A helpful phrase to remember is, “Beliefs don’t have morals – people do.” Recognize that no matter your disagreements, most people want to improve the world. When discussing any topic, belief, or idea, the individuals should not be topics in the conversation. The discussion should end as soon as any individual is the subject of an attack.
Thirdly, remember that your beliefs are not everyone else’s: Maybe you think nuclear energy is terrible because you believe it pollutes the environment – but that doesn’t mean people who like nuclear power want to pollute the environment. Maybe they think it is safer for the environment or provides other benefits that make it worth the tradeoff.
Combining these three things – mutually-agreed-upon definitions, the benefit of doubt, and an assumption of good faith – can turn uncontrolled arguments into calm discussions. When even one person in an argument gets angry, everyone has already lost. Being charitable to your opponent’s not only helps to prevent anger but also streamlines the goal of debates: Getting ever closer to the truth. Open discussion and disagreement have shaped our society into what it is today. By practicing charity, little by little, bit by bit, we just might make our arguments great again.