Political Discourse: Improvement Starts with Us

People who pass our house can’t help but notice that we have a campaign sign on our front lawn. Obviously, we have staked out a position in the upcoming election. I don’t pretend to start this post from a position of political neutrality–as if such a thing were even possible.

I recently took part in a discussion of parishioners at which it became clear that some were disgusted by politics, some were perplexed by the choices available, and all were concerned about our moral responsibilities as we face a month of voting. In one way or another, all of us were trying to answer the same question: as a voter of faith, what are my obligations as a citizen?

As might be expected, the Contrarian has some thoughts.

Let’s start with the premise that we have a responsibility of charity. If we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44), then that directive applies to politics as well as everything else. As St. John XXIII put it, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”

In politics as in everything else, of course we will disagree. What then does charity demand in a political context? How should charity influence the manner of our disagreement?

Let’s make an assumption of good faith: let’s “assume” that people who disagree with us sincerely believe in what they are advocating. Yes, I know the story about what it means “when you assume”; but it’s healthier to start with an overgenerous belief in our neighbor’s sincerity than with the presumption that disagreement must be corrupt or immoral.

Don’t lump people together: all _____s think this. Even within families, people have their own personalities and quirks: we shouldn’t assume that two Republicans or two Democrats both believe the same on everything. (If they do, see “groupthink” below.)

Avoid labels. Labels can be convenient shorthand for clusters of political positions, but they are limited and simplistic. If you disagree with your neighbor on (for example) gun control legislation, why attribute that to his/her party or conservative/liberal bent? (Oh, you just believe that because you’re a _____.) If the belief is wrong, attack the belief. Labeling people is unkind, imprecise, and lazy.

Avoid sarcasm and shaming. If you believe someone is wrong, say it, and say why. But sarcasm is cowardly, hurtful, and generally unproductive. And don’t shame them simply because their belief (or the way they express it) is currently out of favor with one in-crowd or another.

Constantly and critically monitor your own intellectual habits. Here are some suggestions.

  • Seek the truth. “‘What is truth?'” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” (Francis Bacon, “Of Truth,” 1625.) Pilate wasn’t interested in truth and mocked concern for it. But truth isn’t just a special sort of opinion. Truth is generally knowable, and we are obliged to look for it. That may take some study, and for people of faith it may require some research into our church’s teaching.
  • We all need to be aware of the risk of unconscious bias, which can shape our behavior and attitudes towards various groups. A body of convincing research establishes that many of us suffer from biases that we’re not even aware of, and that these can affect all of us, even those who are usually victims of bias.
  • Maintain a healthy skepticism about the basis of your own positions. Another common bias called confirmation bias, also supported by research, is the tendency we all have to believe evidence that supports our existing beliefs and exclude everything to the contrary.
  • In your discussions with friends, watch for signs of groupthink. As J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore puts it, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.) This may be even more true for thought and opinion than it is for behavior.
  • Team up confirmation bias and groupthink and you have an especially toxic phenomenon called the echo chamber, in which people who believe the same thing just listen to each other. Unfortunately, opinion media (aka “cable news”) and social media help to create echo chambers. Although you might need to take a sweetness pill before you take them on, your crazy Uncle Charlie or Aunt Sissy might just be a useful antidote.
  • Watch for inconsistencies. Most of us are uncomfortable with cognitive dissonance, in which we essentially think one thing and do–or think–another. In political conversations it’s fair game to point out inconsistencies, but let’s get our own house in order first! We all can rationalize inconsistent beliefs. Remember that saying about people who live in glass houses.

Listen, I make no claim of special piety or devotion. But it seems to me that if we believe what we say we believe, then we are called to show charity in all our discussions. And even in political matters, integrity demands that we pursue intellectual honesty.

Author: StgCoach

Retired teacher and public education leader. Pastoral musician, community activist, parliamentarian, and photographer.