Divisive Speech

I was sitting in a session this morning, listening to the President of Trevecca Nazarene University, Dan Boone, share from his heart about something that he’s been thinking about lately…divisive speech.

He has a growing concern for the way we’re talking to each other. I appreciated his emphasis on investing in healthy relationships. He cautioned us on two dangers that can drive a wedge into the dialogue process between two parties. The first danger was when people only engage in dialogue in a tit-for-tat manner (he called it transactional). This occurs when a person says, “I’d be willing to do this for you only if you do this for me.” At this point, the relationship dissolves into a negotiation at every level.

The second danger is when people confront others with a “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality (he refers to this a jihad). In this instance, there is no space for engagement and dialogue. The only conversation is a constant pursuit of trying to convince the other person of one’s rightness by showing the wrongness of the other.

When we choose to relate to people in these two areas we lose the ability to enter into a healthy and civil discourse. I clearly recognize that. In fact, during his talk, I sent the following tweet: “When you disagree are you hostile or humble? Conversation doesn’t have to result in consternation.” I think this whole subject is an important one to talk about in the midst of such heated disagreement in the arena of politics, religion, and culture.

And perhaps that’s the biggest issue of all – the “heated” parts of our disagreements. I think we’ve forgotten how to disagree with someone without allowing things to get to the point of personal attack. But have we pushed things too far in the other direction? I get the sense that in our effort to not be divisive in our discussions, we are called on to put disagreement aside. In other words, simply disagreeing with someone is seen as “divisive speech.” It doesn’t matter if I have difficulty with a policy or position based on its merits. The minute I speak up for an opposing position, I’m labeled as one who is disagreeing for a variety of reasons (prejudice, incompetent, ignorant, or just to be divisive) other than the real reason.

I want to be able to have civil discourse. What I don’t want (and isn’t helpful) is putting everyone under the microscope to find their weakness or their last failure in order to win an argument. I want to hope for someone’s best…not their defeat. But differences of opinion do exist and we should be able to talk about those without being labeled as something we’re not. It feels like there are people calling for a greater tolerance of ideas…as long as those ideas are in line with their own. Calling someone an idiot or stupid (or some other insulting label) because that person holds a different opinion than you is not productive.  Disagreements do not have to be reduced to disrespect.

Perhaps it’s time to reshape the culture in which we live. Perhaps we need to stop focusing as much on how we differ and find ways to identify our areas of our common humanity.  I would hope for a society that can learn to disagree without hating each other. I am praying for the humility to learn from those who see things differently from me.

Stephen Covey called this seeking first to understand (before trying to be understood). It takes a willingness to listen. It takes a willingness to listen in such a way that we not only hear what the other person is saying, but we strive to see things from that person’s perspective. I’ve often found that when I do the hard work of really listening, I start to find things that I can connect with in the other person. Even though we may still disagree, our disagreements don’t seem as big when they’re understood in the context of our relationship.

I guess I’m left in a similar situation that our speaker was in – I’m still thinking through some of these things. I know that our present course won’t lead to healthy discourse.

What do you suggest?