Monday, September 21, 2009

How to Disagree Respectfully

Today I'm going to talk about American politics. Now, honestly I don't like to talk about politics. Political conversations deal with complex issues that people often feel passionately about. As a result political discussions can quickly turn ugly. In fact, that's what I want to talk about; how to keep political conversations from turning ugly.

For those of us who are Christians, I believe that in any conversation we should try to show respect to the people we're talking to. This is an important rule to keep in mind when we talk about politics because often times, when these sensitive issues come up, we feel that it's more important that people agree with us. I've seen so many people, Christians included, talk about politics in a way that is disrespectful to their political opponents. So today I'm going to talk about how to be respectful when having political conversations. This post is aimed at Christians, but I think other people might find the advice to be helpful as well.

First of all, don't say things like, "I don't believe he's really a Christian." This statement is usually directed against politicians (like President Obama) although sometimes it is directed against groups of voters (like people who opposed Prop 8 in California). As a politically liberal Christian, this is an issue I can relate to. When George W. Bush was in office I often felt this way about some of his policies. One time I remember complaining with a friend about President Bush and the friend simply said, "Yeah, but he's still family." I think this is an important thing to keep in mind, that as Christians we are brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that you can't criticize people who claim to be Christian. I think it's okay, and even healthy, for us to talk about how we think Christians should behave. We can say things like, "I don't think Christians should support Roe v. Wade." I have often said that I don't think Christians should support torture. It may seem like I'm splitting hairs here, but there's a world of difference between saying, "I don't think Christians should support gay marriage," and, "If you voted against Prop 8 then you aren't really a Christian."

The key difference is that when you say that someone who claims to be Christian isn't really a Christian, you're passing judgment on them. You're saying that they're either a liar or a hypocrite. But passing judgment is God's job and not yours. God can see a person's true character, but you can't. He's the one who gets to decide whether or not someone is really a Christian, not you.

This brings me to my next point, which is, don't say things that aren't true. This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but in today's society it's not as easy as it seems. There are many questionable or unscrupulous news sources that will pass along information that is misleading or just plain false. This is easy to solve, though. Just spend a little time on Google and fact check your sources before you use them in a political debate. This way you're not embarrassing yourself or passing along bad information.

The last point I want to make is this: when in a political debate, talk about facts that can be verified, rather than opinions that are unverifiable. For example, I recently saw a discussion online where someone said that they didn't believe Obama was Christian because he seemed too arrogant. This was frustrating, because not only did they claim that Obama was not a Christian, but their reason for doing so was entirely subjective. To me Obama seems like he's a pretty humble considering that he's the leader of the free world. He certainly doesn't seem any more arrogant than the last President.

When you limit the discussion to verifiable facts, it's a lot easier to establish a common ground. When you decide to argue about things that are entirely subjective, usually there isn't any common ground. Without a common ground the argument often degenerates quickly. Unless you want to throw insults at the other person, your only real option is to just agree to disagree.

Hopefully some of you found this guide helpful. Does anyone else have some suggestions for how to have more polite political conversations?


  1. I really agree with your advice on how to have a political debate. I suppose it comes naturally because our parent's almost never had an argument that they couldn't solve with a dictionary. I find it difficult, though to discuss politics with people of disparaging views. Here's an example:

    I was talking with a co-worker about Obama and explaining why I had supported him. She said "I Dunno, he just looks so untrustworthy. I don't trust him." My coworker failed to keep the conversation in the realm of verifiable facts. The only response to her statement I could think of was "Well do you know of any black men who look trustworthy, or are you a flaming racist?" Having ruled that out as an appropriate thing to say, I just said "He looks fine to me." And we agreed to disagree.

    I guess what I'm saying is, what would you do when your debate opponent breaks the rules of engagement and wanders off into the wilderness of opinion and baseless factoids? How do you reel them back into a worthwhile discussion?

  2. Personally, I just try to point out that what they're saying is merely an opinion. I try to encourage them to give me some actual facts if they want me to change my mind. But it's like they say, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

    For your specific example you could point out that "looks trustworthy" isn't a reliable or accurate way to judge a person's character. You could also try asking the person why they don't think Obama "looks trustworthy." If you know the person well enough you might try asking them to consider whether or not Obama's race plays a role in that evaluation.

    The thing is, accusing someone of racism is a lot like accusing them of not being Christian. You're judging the person's character. Unless you can see the person's thoughts and feelings it's impossible to know for sure what's really going on in there.

    Anyway, I hope the reply helps.