Posts Tagged ‘Winning Political Debates’

Towards A More Civil Public Discourse

One of the strengths of a true democratic system of government is the ability to have open public debates concerning the issues that matter to our nation.  No one individual, political party or system of thought controls or sensors the discussion; even to the point of publicly protesting before governmental buildings, outside political gatherings and in town meetings.  In many other countries of this world, such open protestations would be met with government oppression, brutality and even imprisonment and possibly death.

American citizens should appreciate these freedoms.  I strongly believe that they should be guarded and practiced.  However, I also believe that there is a danger today of allowing this form of public debate and open protest to degenerate into a deconstructive melee that will damage our system of public debate rather than promote it by the way we conduct ourselves.  Too often in today’s political climate the open discussions in our newspapers, talk-radio stations and sidewalk protests devolve into a hostile mob that demonizes everyone who does not think like they do.

This is group-think at its worst.  There is no open and honest dialogue with the opposing viewpoint in many cases.  Instead, they are rallies to cheerlead a particular political or social agenda without regard to the other side of the argument.  The other side is not even welcome to the table.  They are seen as “the enemy”.

This is not about the political left or the political right.  It is not about Republicans, Democrats, the Tea Party or Coffee Party advocates.  I am more concerned about America’s tone and tenor in the discussion.  Where is the “civil” in our civil public debate and discourse?  What happened to dealing with issues rationally and objectively?  Is there really an honest discussion taking place for the benefit of all people if one side of the debate is not present?

I am not suggesting that debate be dispassionate.  Neither am I suggesting that individuals or groups should not boldly and strongly affirm and assert their position.  What I am suggesting is that there is a way to do that without demonizing and alienating the other side of the debate.  When our debate descends from dealing with issues and facts to finger-pointing, name calling and generating misinformation about the other side’s position, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we really accomplishing?”  I would venture to answer, “Not much.”

Granted, from America’s earliest political days, public discourse has been heated and mean.  (Something I address in an earlier Blog Post: “Let’s All Calm Down!”)  For a great picture of how mean it could get, I recommend William Safire‘s book Scandalmonger.  After the colonies won their independence from England, some of our earliest leaders were dismayed  how fractious and uncivil American politics quickly became.  George Washington despaired over the hostile divisions of the American political arena.  Individuals who were compatriots in the Revolution became bitter enemies afterward.

Another period of American history that turned into civil war instead of civil discourse was prior to and during Abraham Lincoln’s term in office.  The issues of states rights, federal government powers and slavery were issues that consumed American politics from its earliest days.  Reading the diatribes of the times, one senses a growing hostility between parties to the point that by the time Abraham Lincoln gained office he despaired whether the divide could even be healed.  It turns out he was both right and wrong.  The great divide in American politics and society could be bridged, but only by war.

It is precisely this type of “war” language that we are hearing once again on the fringes of the public discourse surrounding American politics and the accompanying agendas.  Whether it is the Health Care Reform Bill, abortion, socialism versus capitalism, taxes, gun ownership or any of the other number of “hot button” issues, the divide between the sides is growing into an unbreachable wall that will not permit constructive dialogue and problem solving.

History teaches us that the “fringes” of public thought soon become the primary movers for social reform.  Therefore, it would be wise for us to pay attention to how our public discourse is being shaped by them.  Again, I am not addressing the issues or topics discussed.  I am more concerned about the way in which they are being discussed.  The process of debate shapes us as much as the actual decisions that come out of it do.  How are we allowing the way we discuss and debate these issues shape us as a people and nation?

I am particularly dismayed and shocked at how Conservative Christians, or just Christians in general, conduct themselves in this public discourse.  We most often come across as the most angry and hostile.  Our points, which are very good ones, are lost in the screaming and yelling at the opposing side.  However passionate one might feel about a particular political issue, as a Christian, one must ask, “How does the way I conduct myself and communicate my message reflect the Kingdom of God and its King?”

Christians live in the tension of existing in two kingdoms: the Kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of God.  We are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost.  Therefore, as citizens and ambassadors of that Kingdom to this earthly one, we should be concerned with how our actions and words portray the Kingdom of God and its King.

I am not suggesting that silence is the answer.  Neither is not caring what happens to and in this world.  We are called to bring the Kingdom of God to the world in which we live through our lives and our witness.  The issues of righteousness and justice are central to this mission.  However, the manner in which we strive for those things is just as important as their substance.  For by the way we conduct ourselves we reflect the nature and character of not only the Kingdom of God but also the nature and character of its ruler – our Heavenly Father.

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003

Beach Pebbles, Ozette River Camp Site, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

My experience has taught me that the one who begins yelling the loudest has already lost the debate for he or she has no further substantive content or cogent arguments to make to prove his or her point.  There is a more civil way to conduct a civil public discourse.  Let me humbly recommend a few action points that may help us towards a more healthy and constructive public debate:

  1. Have a first hand knowledge of the issues and their facts.  Do not depend upon the pundits or politically slanted news organizations to give you objective truth.  Remember, they have an agenda that sells and makes them money.  That’s their primary concern.  If they truly worked for resolutions, they would be out of business.  It’s in their best interest to stir up the debate, not resolve it.
  2. Turn off and tune out “the screamers”.  Those yelling the loudest, as I said above, often do not have anything more constructive to bring to the argument other than passion.  While their passion is good, at the end of the day, it will not win the debate of substance.  If you get a conservative or liberal news source – internet, print, TV, or radio – make sure you are balancing it by listening or reading to the opposing side.  Make sure you know the rational points and objections the other side of the argument is making.  This will sharpen your own points.
  3. Read and learn from history.  This is not the first time that American politics has gotten heated and ugly.  It is not the lowest we have reached in the political forum.  However, to avoid delving deeper or repeating the mistakes of the past, it is important to know where we have been and where we have come from in our collective history.
  4. Openly invite and welcome the opposing side to the discussion.  Two things can only be accomplished by this:  First, you will learn the objections and points of the other sided.  Second, you will strengthen your position and ability to communicate your point.  You will also learn the weaknesses in your own argument, which will send you back to studying and learning about the issues and facts.  You may be surprised and change your mind as a result!  Or, you may win a friend and the debate by being better equipped.
  5. Learn the difference between a public rally and public debate.  More of the former takes place than the latter.  Rallies are good for energizing and mobilizing political partners, if that is what is actually happening.  However, in my experience, they too easily devolve into pointless and nasty caricaturizations of the opposition.  A debate will have the opposition present and allow it to fairly communicate its points.  It will require clear and cogent communication, but, just as important, listening.
  6. Finally, for those who are Christians, remember the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God.  It is not bound by the boundaries of a political party or social agenda.  The Church of Christ is growing and propagating in some of the most hostile political and social environments our world has to offer.  God is bigger than either political party.  We are called to represent and be communicators of that Kingdom to this world.  How we do that is just as important as the substance of our agendas.  Do our words and actions reflect the nature and character of the One we way we follow and serve?

There are no easy answers and solutions to resolving differences of opinions.  It is why we call the discussions of these things “debates,” after all.  However, I am firmly convinced and convicted that as mature people interested in the good of all humankind and creation that we can do a better job of being civil in our public discourse.  The way we conduct our public debates shapes us as much or more so than the substances of those debates.  Cherishing and honoring this important democratic process is important to our future as a nation.

Good constructive debate over the issues and facts is healthy for our democracy.  Hostile demonization and threats of violence only send us back into the times of tribal warfare or, worse yet, civil war.  However, I have faith in people, especially the American people, and especially the American democratic experiment that we can turn towards a more civil public discourse.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Let’s All Calm Down

Island at low tide on Washington coast.

Island at low tide on Washington coast. ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

In the politically charged climate of our day where polarization of opinions is populating every form of media, I have a suggestion:  Let’s all just calm down.  I especially speak to the political right and even more so to conservative Christians.  We all need to calm down and get a better perspective of our current state of affairs.

Every generation’s story could begin with the great literary line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times“.  Some times, granted, are better than others and some worse than others.  Nevertheless, when put into an overarching view of human and national history, I think we can all say, “Well, thank God it’s not the worst it’s ever been but wish to God it was more like some of our better moments in history.”

Instead of listening to our pundits and favorite promoters of fear and hate, it might behoove more of us to study the events our day in light of our common history as a nation.  Each generation is crippled with a blindness to their history.  As such, they think that what they see and experience is unique.  Chances are, however, that it is not.  We are simply suffering the doom of repeating history.

For example, do you think that the vitriolic animosity between the opposing political parties today is as bad or worse than it has ever been?  Well, you would be wrong to think that way.  At the early formation of our nation, just after we won our independence from England, there were congressional episodes of politicians yelling at one another.  On at least one occasion, a fight ensued and canes were used in the battle with some bloody results.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became so embittered toward one another after the colonies won their independence from England that they refused to speak to each other.  George Washington lamented the fragmented state of politics because of political parties.  Abraham Lincoln was hated by the opposing political party as much as Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush were in our recent history, perhaps more so.

Our country also seems to be fighting for its own identity as to whether we will be a nation with small government and strong individual and state rights or a nation with a strong all-encompassing central government that serves the needs of the people and the states.  Once again, this is something that the United States of America has been struggling with since its inception.

It was one reason for the break up of the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, those who had risked life and fortune in a revolution were, shortly after their victory, to become bitter political rivals over this very question.  John Adams believed in a strong central government with a strong central bank and the capacity to deal with other nations and protect itself with a standing army and navy.  Thomas Jefferson didn’t want a central “all powerful” bank that would put money in the hands of a few financiers.  Other than representing the United States to the nations of the world, states and individuals should rule themselves as they see fit.  This debate has been a constant debate in American politics and will continue to be in the future.  Cries against socialism and communism go back to the late 19th century but have it roots in the 18th century.

One of the big debates today is what to do with immigration.  Once again, this has been a constant issue for Americans.  Except those of native American roots, we all come from an immigrant heritage.  Newcomers to this land have suffered discrimination from day one.  Literally.  The settled colonies in the “new world” were pitted against one another based upon nationality and religious expression – Catholic, Anglican, Puritan, Lutheran, Pietist, Anabaptist, on and on.  And sometimes, the discrimination could turn deadly.  The Danish, English, and French were a miserable triangle of national self interests and ethnic prejudices.

Afraid of losing the English language? I dare say that there has been very little of history where we have all spoke the same English dialect.  Up until a few years ago, the Midwest was full of churches that only used the “native tongues” of their forefathers – German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, French, Russian.  My Swedish grandfather told of times when he first came to America where the discrimination against him for being a Swede was really brutal.  At a young age entering school, he was mercilessly made fun of by the other kids who spoke English – with strong German accents mind you.  His Swedish language and broken halting English made him an outsider for a long time and a brunt of jokes well into his adulthood.  It was a crying shame when in the ’70’s the Lutheran congregation of Swedes could not find a pastor any longer who preached in Swedish.

A good friend of mine just a couple of years ago pastored a German speaking congregation in North Dakota.  This is all within my generation!  Go to the upper-Midwest and you can still hear the lilt of the Scandinavian influence in people’s English.  Go to New Orleans and you can hear the strong French and Creole influence.  Go to some places in the Appalachians and you can still pick up the Scottish influences in the dialect there.  Go to Dutch Pennsylvania and lo and behold if there isn’t a Dutch influence on the language and the culture.  Those immigrants!  So, I wouldn’t be afraid of someone with a strong Hispanic accent.  They’ll keep their mother tongue for awhile, but like our ancestors, their children will learn English.  And just as my relatives have kept lutefisk, krumkake, kringla, and other Scandinavian delicacies in their diet, we can expect that they will keep their traditions and diets too.

What about the fears concerning our economy? Once again, American history tells us that there have been many stock market crashes and recessions.  Amazingly, America is still around to deal in the world economy!  The stock market crash of 1929 is the most recent in modern American’s conscience, but there were some that were just as bad.  The crash of 1916/17 saw the market lose 40% of its value.  In the crash of 1973/74, it lost 45% of its value.  The crash that effected the economy from 1901 – 1903 saw the market lose 46%.  Anyone else remember “Black Friday” of 1987?  The market lost almost 25% in one day!  These are just in our own century.  In 19th century America they came harder and more frequently.  1876, the one hundredth anniversary of our nation, was especially hard for the U.S. economy.  After the 1929 crash, there was plenty of predictions that American capitalism was dead.  Yet, here we are today.  Yes, many individuals have suffered.  But it has not spelled the end of us as a nation.

What about the changes in our economy? The loss of manufacturing sectors and job markets?  The change in the late 19th century from whale oil to crude oil for heating and lighting was prophesied to be the end of all good things.  It wasn’t.  The truth of the matter is that our capitalist economy has gone through many changes in 200+ years of history.  We moved from an almost total agrarian society to an industrialized one.  We are quickly moving from an industrial one to a technological one.  We have an incredible capacity as a nation to adapt and change.  Does it bring hardship and change?  Yes.  But does it spell the end of all things?  No.

So, where does this leave us? Let me humbly suggest a few things:

  1. Turn off the pundits who make their money by keeping the fear alarm at feverish pitch.  They arent’ doing anyone any favors.  It is their livelihood and business to always be in opposition and to keep the alarm ringing.  They are only serving their own financial interests.  You are just a part of their market.
  2. Read up on history.  Educate yourself. You don’t have to check out large, boring volumes from the local public library to be informed.  There are some good web sites on the internet that will distill the information you need into understandable packets.  However, I do suggest reading a few good history books on American history – particularly biographies.  (David McCullough is one of my favorites and so is Barbara Tuchman.)  Even historical novels will give you a sense of background and historical perspective for a time period.
  3. Do the very thing the Bible instructs us to do. Pray for and bless our political leaders.  I don’t know about you but I’m sick and tired of the “Obamanation” invective thrown around by political conservatives.  The Bible is clear about using our tongues to bless and not curse.
  4. Get involved in the political process and be Christ-like about it. I believe that the political conservative movement has rightly earned their bad image.  We have behaved poorly.  It is especially disappointing for Christian conservatives – those who supposedly follow the way of Jesus – to behave in like manner.  What or who are we taking our social action cues from?  “As much as it depends upon you, be at peace with everyone” and “Bless and curse not” are Scripture verses we could remind ourselves of a little more often.

This applies to those on the left-side of center as well. Christians who find themselves on the liberal side of politics pour as much fuel on the fire as anyone else.  In short, we are all to blame for the mess we are in.  Our greatest enemy is not from some distant Arabian land but from within each of our own hearts.  Therefore, it might be to our best interests if we all just take a little time-out break.  Let’s all just settle down.  It’s not the best of times.  But it’s not the worst of times either.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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