Why can’t we talk politics or religion anymore? One reason is the social norm we’ve all heard that it’s the one thing we ought not do. But I propose it’s because we’ve developed bad habits that create an unhealthy way to talk to each other. What follows is my effort to capture the biggest obstacles that destruct our most meaningful conversations and how to overcome them:
1. We conflate the issue with the person.
Here’s a challenge:
Turn on the news and time how long it takes before you hear some praise or critique of a human being. Within seconds, I bet we’ll hear about or see a news segment about what a politician or celebrity said or did. The mention of a person isn’t bad by itself, but what concerns me and what should concern all of us, is that our focus has shifted on the person away from the principles. We’re more concerned with who did something than the rightness or wrongness of what was done. Prior to our culture’s abandonment of classical education, grade school kids were taught rhetoric where they learned of the ancient logical fallacies like “ad hominem” (or “of the man”).
For example, suppose the president gave three reasons why his immigration policy has led to decreased unemployment and increased public safety. A response we could imagine might be that the president is a liar and a racist. However, it’s fallacious to base the strength of a claim based on the character or attributes of the person making the claim no matter how outrageous his behavior. The right way to assess any claim is to leave the person completely out of the discussion and then see if their argument can bear its own weight by standing on its own. Our assessment of the argument should be the same with the president as it would be if it were offered by anyone else. We’ve somehow lost sight of this age-old lesson. It’s become so bad that we’ve come to expect it as a normal way of responding to every sort of criticism. We consider every response to our most cherished ideas as a direct reflection on the character of the person who holds this. If you have a view we like, your view is “correct” because we deem it loving and accepting. If we disagree, your view is “incorrect” because it’s intolerant, hateful, and even dangerous. If you agree with my idea, you like me. If you disagree with my idea you hate me. Ideas and people are inseparably intertwined. Here ends civil debate. If we must always agree on everything important, we can never examine opposing views. Why consider something hateful, bigoted, and dangerous? It’s those things we must never tolerate! What’s worse, this thinking prevents us from ever entertaining the possibility we could be wrong. People speak ideas but they are distinct from each other. You’re reading my ideas in this article. Why can’t we do the same to our politicians and friends?
2. We deny that moral or religious claims must be either true or false.
For people on the opposing sides of this question, it’s almost like speaking two different languages. One side, we’ll call the objective side, demands evidence while the subjective side demands empathy. When this happens, the conversation has no hope because each begins with an incompatible assumption and uncompromising goal. The objective side assumes we assess claims by the strength of their reasons and the logic of their reasoning. Their goal is to determine truth. The side that wants empathy has an altogether different aim. The subjective side assumes reasons are only relevant as much as they impact personal feelings and desires. Their goal is to satisfy desire. To emphasize this dilemma, we must realize that if our subjective friend is right, there is no purpose in discussing religion or morality because no one can be right. If there are no moral or religious truths, we can believe whatever we want. It means there is no reality behind our beliefs and therefore no real meaning behind them all. We’ve entered fantasy land. But this is extremely unsatisfying even to the most relativist moral philosopher. Everyone knows evil and injustice exists. And if that is the case, there is a reality lurking behind those moral and religious claims no matter how much we pretend otherwise. All we need to do is remind our friend that the moral or religious error they’re complaining about assumes moral or religious truth is ignored.
3. We’re ignoring or presuming the reasons for our own beliefs.
Like walls to a roof, beliefs are only as strong as the reasons that support them. Much like walls of a house, we go through life just taking them for granted until something causes us to look at their holes. When pressed on our beliefs, sometimes we can give a reasoned defense for the positions we hold but there are times we don’t know the reasons or don’t have any at all. This was the case for a new friend of mine. After debating the local spokesperson of Freethought Arizona, I had several private interactions with Dr. Gil Shapiro over coffee or lunch. We differ on many religious and political views but our newly formed friendship bonded on human values. People innately want to get along and love each other. There’s nothing wrong with agreement, but I feared there was a layer of insincerity if we left it there. It wasn’t until we dug deeper in our conversations that they quickly become much more meaningful and productive. So, I looked through the superficial layer of the moral issues and targeted the grounding question. We agree it’s wrong to harm humans (or any sentient creature) just for the fun of it, but the reason why it’s wrong is what I was after. What makes sentience or humanity of greater worth than other attributes like resilience, population, or duration? Bacteria is among the most resilient, populated, and ancient creature on earth. How is it not special pleading to select the attributes (i.e. sentience, awareness, intelligence, capacity) over the attributes of the ones we want to kill? Isn’t that what the Nazi’s and slave-traders did to Africans, what men did to women, or what the strong have done to the weak throughout the centuries? It turned out that Gil didn’t have any reasons. He started with the brute fact that humans are valuable, but that’s circular reasoning. His reasons assumed the conclusion that humans are valuable. He just assumed it before we even ask the question why they are. For Christians, the intrinsic value of human beings is grounded in their Creator. I bet there are Christians who, just like Dr. Shapiro, don’t know what grounds human value. So regardless of our worldview position, we should know what the reasons are. If we don’t, we better ask why we believe the conclusions they are supposed to support. Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to look around to make sure your house still has walls, especially when the roof seems to start falling down all around you.
4. We wrongly assume the beliefs of others before asking them.
We just talked about how people assume or don’t have reasons for their own beliefs but sometimes we assume what other people believe too. We construct our own conception of their beliefs based on our preconceived notions of their religion, culture, or past behavior.
I once hosted the local Mormon stake president to join me on stage at our church in Arizona. I knew about Mormonism but spent several weeks brushing up and studying their sacred scriptures and church doctrine leading up to the event. Even after all the prep, there’s no way I could have been ready for what he said. I challenged him on the Mormon denial of unmerited grace and he surprised me by accepting the doctrine. I immediately regretted it. I wish I had asked a question rather than opposed him with criticism. We fix this by asking them for their reasons for key positions even if it seems obvious. The point is that until the reasons are made clear by the person you’re speaking with, continue to go deeper until you find them. When you do, one of two things will happen: either your friend will impress you with good reasons, or leave you wanting for better ones. So just ask and see what they say.
5. We believe what we want to unless forced otherwise.
We bought our first home in southern California and soon after enjoyed a meteoric rise in property value. With dollar signs in our eyes we capitalized on the equity by obtaining a generous home equity loan and spent it all. We expanded the house, paid off loans, made some investments, and even bought new furniture to go with our remodel. Life was good. When the market crashed, we realized something we always knew but never accepted. We knew what goes up in value can also come down. It’s an obvious fact we conveniently ignored in our greedy human minds. Once we came to terms with this – through some tough financial lessons - we changed our lifestyle to accommodate this reality. It was gradual and hard, but we did it after we finally accepted what we already knew to be true. Our pride had to take a lower place on our priority list than our respect for reality.
Let’s shift the analogy to the spiritual realm. Just imagine if your lifestyle or belief system of many years runs in direct opposition to the God of the universe with real and everlasting consequences. If we’re honest, we should all tremble at the thought. It’s self-evident that nobody wants what they don’t want. I’ve previously written about the powerful influence of our conditioning, cares, and community here. Consider my Mormon friend who raised a large family and then influenced a second generation of grandchildren in Mormon doctrine. He’s served decades in various roles of the Church and currently leads thousands. The amount of humility it would take to change course now is hard to overestimate. If truth matters to him, it’s a decision he must make but one that doesn’t come without a cost. When we’re talking about changing our entire worldview and lifestyle, it helps to know what our friends are facing before we expect them to change no matter how overwhelming the evidence may be. We need to sympathize with this. When we give hard truth, we need to be ready to walk along side of them.
6. We avoid the issue.
It’s hard to face someone on important issues we disagree on so the natural reaction is to avoid the topic altogether. That’s why conversations on politics, ethics, or religion can be slippery. As soon as one person takes the conversation into another direction, we’re no longer talking about that subject anymore. We’re talking about something else. As we discussed previously on the “ad hominem” fallacy, this logical error has also earned a nickname: “red herring,” a smelly fish used to test the skills of British hunting dogs. Hounds skilled at following the scent of wild game should not be distracted by the strong odor of something else. Instead, they should stay the course and follow the scent of the original target until the mission is accomplished. Likewise, when we engage on difficult subjects, we must not be led astray by side-issues even related ones. Sometimes, we don’t have a strong case so it’s more comfortable to talk about something else. A common tendency in abortion debates illustrates this well. Both the pro-life and pro-abortion choice sides understand that an abortion procedure ends the life of a living human. So, it’s odd when the abortion choice advocate refers to their position as “reproductive choice.” The human fetus is already reproduced by a set of human parents. After all, if there was no choice to reproduce, there would be no need for an abortion. Reproductive choice happens when an fertile opposite sex adults have intercourse. Restricting the choice to have sex is an entirely different issue than abortion. All we have to do is keep things on track and when we notice the shift, to redirect the conversation to the topic at hand. If we want to discuss something, it doesn’t help to discuss something else no matter how related the topic may be.
7. We use facts that are untrue and deny true ones.
This usually happens at our best when we’re lazy or at our worst when we’re dishonest. If the conversation breaks down, we can get fast and loose with the facts. We’ll employ unsubstantiated facts to bolster our case and dismiss ones that harm it. Sometimes this isn’t really our intent. Most of us aren’t experts in the area we’re discussing so we can’t be expected to know all the current scholarship on the issue. But this shouldn’t be an excuse not to learn and engage nor should it be an excuse to get things wrong to make a point. We must avoid the temptation to cite facts we don’t even fully believe ourselves or to doubt every alternative fact. Let’s at least be honest and say we don’t know when we really don’t know or humbly let confirmed facts change our beliefs. All it takes is for deep love for the truth above that of our own pride or agenda.
8. We confuse nice-ness with agreement
It’s hard to object to anyone about anything while trying to win the world with a charming personality. Voicing disagreement on issues people have strong beliefs about is considered rude in our culture today. When it’s nice to agree and rude to disagree, there’s no room for more than one position on any issue.
Consider a room full of people swapping stories about how we’re each doing our part to combat global warming. How would it be received at the cocktail party if you, ever so politely, mentioned that global warming is a myth? Regardless of our view on this topic, we all know how you would look after the beating. We could take a tip from Jesus on this point. Never before or since has there been more loved poured out from anyone than by Him. Jesus is love personified. Yet, when political or religious leaders persisted in error on important points, Jesus pulled no punches. The gospels report Jesus’s compassion on children, widows, the sick, the poor, and the outcasts, but he wasn’t a nice guy when he was faced with error on important things by people who knew better. Whenever He encountered political or religious error or personal immorality He called names, made judgements, showed intolerance, used labels, hurt feelings, and ultimately triggered a violent mob response leading to not only His own death but the death of millions of his followers long afterwards. I’m not suggesting we do exactly that but there are applications to take from it. Look at Paul. He wasn’t nice to his detractors either. People who persist in error despite correction must be publicly ridiculed or else their ideas will be tolerated and their evils will become acceptable. Being nice and hoping that will change the world is wrong headed and un-Christlike. The remedy is almost too obvious to say out loud: we simply need to have civil debate.
9. We don’t really love each other
This one is the hardest to accept but it explains a lot about why we fail in our tough conversations. We all say we’re about love and not hate but how do we really show it? Jesus said to love our neighbor as ourselves and then illustrated the point by including a despised person (Samaritan) as the one we’re called to love as our own selves. If we don’t follow Jesus on this point, we by default love ourselves more than the person so our interest will be self-centered. The priority will be to satisfy our own pride rather than to honor God by loving the person we’re talking to. If we don’t really love the person, we’ll do whatever it takes to make things easier. This is why we choose to placate our friends’ desires by accepting their unhealthy lifestyle (It’s their life!) rather than risking offense by urging them to adopt an alternative and healthier one. If we really loved each other like Jesus, Paul, and other early Christians did, we would take the riskier and more difficult path by pointing to error and walking with them through the tough road ahead. Sadly, this goes against the social norm of our day. Today it’s more acceptable to watch a friend decline for the sake of personal autonomy and tolerance rather than to give a compassionate reasoned argument for change and offer to help them through it.
10. We don’t even engage in the first place.
If we really care about people and have sincere convictions, the fact that we don’t engage should grieve us all. Whatever the reason, human beings tend to take the path of least resistance. For Christians, this is sinful. We believe Jesus of Nazareth taught radically new concepts about the world and our role in it. We believe that he was publicly executed but later vindicated and resurrected from the dead by the Father God Almighty. We believe he commanded us to engage with people to convince them these things really happened and to show them how to follow Him too. Motivation to spread the news isn’t unique to Christians. Atheists who think organized religion corrupts society can be just as zealous for their faith. Wherever differing sides meet, there can be much learning and understanding. This is a healthy thing. It’s when we stop talking and start condemning each other that things begin to break down. Perhaps the reason why we’ve lost the ability to engage in civil debate is because of bad habits like these.
There’s a lot to improve but we can change. Like financial planning, health, nutrition, parenting, and anything else that matters, change can be difficult but it’s not impossible. The good news is while we can’t change other people, we can change how we ourselves approach tough conversations by changing how we think and behave. All ten points can be corrected immediately. So next time you hear someone nearby voice opposition to your personal convictions and you feel your heart start racing, and brow sweating, stop for a second and consider these ten tips:
1. Treat the issue separate from the person
2. Recognize moral and religious claims are either true or false
3. Discover reasons for our own beliefs
4. Don’t assume anyone else’s beliefs but ask them
5. Realize that it’s not only intellectual but that our desires play a large role in our beliefs
6. Keep the conversation on topic and point out distractions
7. Stick with mutually agreed upon facts or be ready to test new ones
8. Be aware that we can be nice and disagree at the same time
9. Really love people
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