Western culture has always prided itself on the value of civil discourse and the merits of gracious engagement even with regard to issues that people often did not see eye to eye on. Everyone had an opinion and that was alright, they had a right to have one. For the most part however, everyone generally understood that not all these opinions were right and if we disagreed with it, we could always politely say so and still have an espresso with that person at the local Starbucks later. After all, our relationship was not always at stake even if we disagreed on a particular matter.
But there was a fundamental shift in the cultural discourse which became very obvious in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Elections. Let me clarify that – I'm not saying the election caused it; I'm saying the election exposed a rift that had already been simmering for a while. People who had been friends on social media for years were 'de-friending' each other at the slightest provocation. Conversation threads were filled with vitriolic language and name-calling. The overall conversational climate had degenerated to such lows that people were terminating their Facebook accounts just to keep their blood-pressure (and in some cases, sanity) in check!
But how did we get here? Is there any way back to how things were before all this madness began? And how can we as Christians especially, influence the culture in the right direction? While the psychological reasons and socio-cultural issues to assess here are too deep and complex to tackle in this article, I did want to offer three practical measures that we can all take, to at least lower the 'conversational temperature' back to a respectable level.
At the heart of the problem is our presumption of 'being right'. As soon as we detect an opposing perspective, we rush to our battle-stations that are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The problem with this knee-jerk reaction is it immediately positions us on 'the other side' even before we've begun talking. We assume we're right and the other person is wrong. But how do we know this? We haven't even taken the time to listen to their entire argument yet. All we did was identify a 'small deference' in their view to ours, a little 'buzz-word' that is loaded with all kinds of meaning that we've attributed to it, maybe even a slight hesitation in their thoughts that somehow managed to communicate to us, "Because they didn't wholeheartedly approve of my position, they MUST be disagreeing with me and therefore, wrong!" But let's pause for a second and ask ourselves – is it possible that we may not know everything about the issue? Is it possible that the person we are talking to may have something to say that might actually broaden our perspectives? Is it possible that we may actually learn something from this conversation that we've missed before? The answer is an emphatic 'yes' to all! If we are to have any sort of conversation with anyone (let alone a difficult conversation with someone we may disagree with), we must go into that conversation with an open mind and a teachable heart. Otherwise the conversation is doomed to fail even before it has begun.
Assume the Best
There is a logical fallacy called, 'Ad Hominem', in which a person's character, personality or motives are attacked instead of addressing their argument. This tactic often shifts attention away from the issue itself and puts the other person in poor light, for the sake of winning the argument. Unfortunately this happens a lot in difficult conversations. The real problem however is that we assume this in our minds even though we may not say it directly to the person in front of us. Just because they don't hold our view, we assume they must be ignorant, naive, stupid, immoral or plain evil. Even as the person is speaking, we think in our heads, "This guy has no idea what he is talking about and is not worth my time to engage with him intellectually." Isn't this unfair to that person though? We've already attributed to him all kinds of malicious content or intent, that he may not have at all. Is it possible that he may just be misinformed? Is it possible he may have simply come to the wrong conclusion? Of course, it is. We all have done that at one time or the other. Let's learn to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Instead of immediately attributing 'immorality' to the person, we could simply assume 'misinformation' or 'ignorance'. To err is human, after all. Not to mention also that the other person might be thinking the same thing of you. You wouldn't want them to assume bad intentions of you, so let's not reciprocate it then. They're probably trying to do their best to make the most informed decision themselves. So just give them the benefit of the doubt.
Break the Cycle
It takes two to have a conversation. That means there is an equal measure of responsibility that each participant bears in maintaining the integrity of a conversation. If one of those participants breaks the code of civility or respect first, it does not necessarily mean that the conversation is now irreversibly tainted. The other participant always has a choice - you can choose to feel triggered and lash out in return...or you can break the cycle. You can absorb the animosity and dismiss it by continuing the conversation respectfully. But you can also politely tell the other person that you understand this can be an emotional issue but there is no reason for us to be uncivil with each other. This accomplishes two things – first, it immediately brings down the rising temperature of the conversation. But secondly, it also communicates to the other person that you care enough about the dialogue that you don't wish to taint it with emotionalism. And simply stating that to the person directly but politely can act like a 'reset' button to help re-orient the person's attention to their escalating behavior and possibly encourage them to rethink their approach. Once that happens, the conversation is on steady ground again and can always become fruitful. You don't have to be a victim of your conversation...break the cycle.
As a post-script, let me say this. One of the reasons for the rising levels of conversational animosity and hostile rhetoric is the anonymity that technology and social media brings – in other words the safety of distance and 'virtual invisibility' that a computer or phone screen brings, de-incentivizes people from having to operate with the civility or respect that they would normally engage with, if they were making that comment in person. The lack of that natural 'check and balance' has made the internet and social media platforms in particular, toxic environments that can be mildly stressful. I say all that to simply mention the fact that if social media causes any degree of anxiety, anger or disillusionment (and the data shows that it does), then it is never a bad idea to simply step away from social media for some time. In fact, there is also plenty of data to prove that there is a distinct improvement in people's general demeanor when they take the time to detox from any type of 'screen' in general, whether it is TV, cellphones or computers.
The Bible teaches us that "love covers a multitude of sins" (1st Peter 4:8) and it is to our spiritual benefit when we overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11). The next time we get on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media platform, let's remember that we are engaging with other people, who just like us, are made in the image of God. And for that reason alone, deserve to be treated with gentleness and respect (1st Peter 3:15). Let's strive to be winsome ambassadors of Christ to the culture around us. Speaking the truth in love, cannot be merely assumed. It must be modeled and it should begin with us.
Prashanth Daniel is a writer and speaker whose passion is to train Christians to understand, articulate and defend their faith as winsome ambassadors, specifically in the fields of theology, philosophy and apologetics. He holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics (Biola University, CA) and an MTh. in Systematic Theology (University of Aberdeen, UK). Prashanth, his wife, Elisha, and their three boys live in Chariton, Iowa.