We are just over 100 days into the Trump years in the White House, and I find myself very frustrated. I’m not talking about the positions of the administration or of one party over another. I’m talking about the over all tone in the government. Honestly, I’m fed up! I’m fed up with them because I can’t use them as role models or guides to teach my children the art of civil discourse.
That’s right, you read that correctly, the people running our government, the news organizations that cover them, and the pundits are poor examples of civil discourse.
John Locke in book III of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding described civil discourse like this:
“I mean such a communication of thoughts and ideas by words, as may serve for the upholding common conversation and commerce, about the ordinary affairs and conveniences of civil life, in the societies of men, one amongst another.”
I like that definition. I use as a guide to teach civil discourse to my boys. We are all a part of the societies of humankind and as such we need the ability to talk about the affairs and issues in our civil life without being reduced to our lowest form of behavior. Each of us have belief, opinion, or a stake in how we approach the great moral issues that we face. Because of that we need to practice and perfect our ability to have open conversation about complex and polarizing issues.
In high school, I was a member of my school’s debate team. At every debate meet there were other debaters with varying degrees of preparation and varying degrees of understanding on the topics. During the course of a meet I was not allowed to resort to name calling or whining about the topics. I was not allowed to complain about the judges or their criteria. To be successful I had to respond to the arguments that my opponents put forward with patience, integrity, humility, and respect for each team or opponent I faced. I had to openly disagree with other debaters while proving my case and maintaining a civil respectful tone with my opponents. There are three lessons I learned in my years on the debate team. I hope to pass these lessons on to my children.
Three Lessons for Civil Discourse Success
- Listen with patience: Patience is an invaluable tool. The only way I could be successful was to listen with patience and understanding to another person’s position as they put it into their own terms. This has been an invaluable skill for me. It has helped me be empathetic when I need to. It has also helped me recognize whether or not continuing a conversation will be a waste of time.
- Be willing to be wrong: No one is right all of the time. I needed to be open to new arguments and ideas I had not yet heard. Doing so caused me to check my opponents facts as well as my own and verify them. It meant recognizing when I was wrong, accepting it, and most importantly not persisting in it. It meant changing a position and not continuing to use information that had been shown to be invalid in the future.
- Respect opposing views: I had to respect my opponent. The very nature of a debate meant I disagreed with what they said. Nonetheless I had to show respect for their right to propose a different position on the topic at hand. I had to honor their right to hold a contradictory position and have a respectful discourse about the merits and flaws of our differences. This does not mean I had to give value to a poor or even harmful opinion or even tolerate it. It meant only that I had to respect my opponent and their right to have that opinion.
These are skills I want my children to have. Sadly, I find myself using the people involved in our politics today not as worthy examples of civil discourse, but as examples of what not to do.
Instead I will teach them through example. I want to show them that we can disagree without disassociating ourselves from those we disagree with. I want to show them how to be open to new information and how to be wrong gracefully. I want to teach them how to be tolerant of another person without having to be tolerant of that person’s opinions and ideas.
I want to do these things because we have big issues facing us today. They will be the voices of the big issues to be faced in the future. I want them to be positive facilitators and contributors to that process. I want them to join in fully with others from all walks of life. I want them to lend their voices and minds to social and political conversations that seek to solve the problems facing their world.
They need to be ready to engage others in the art of civil discourse.
Do you have tips on teaching civil discourse to your children? Please share them in the comments!