So you’re talking with your neighbor or co-worker about the issues and candidates in this November’s presidential election and find you are on opposite sides of the fence — and not by just a little. As sometimes happens in such discussions, things get a little animated. Emotions rise, and so do voices and blood pressures. A little mud might fly. Friendships might strain.
That’s not how it ought to be.
An election year is a time for making important choices on candidates and issues, and it is natural that we as citizens discuss and share their opinions regarding the decisions we face. Unfortunately, it also is true that such discussions sometimes highlight or even broaden the gaps that divide us.
Divisiveness seems to abound in politics today, with much vitriol and little conciliation in rhetoric among our elected officials and candidates. The electorate likewise seems largely polarized on key issues. The tone of political dialogue is often ugly and accusatory, and not at all civil.
How should we as Catholics act in a time of such spirited debate, confusion and rancor? Here are a few principles to keep in mind for maintaining civility in political discourse — or any other subject of controversy:
Speak the truth in love. That’s a principle that comes straight from St. Paul (see Eph 4:14-15, RSV). When the hot topic at hand involves an objective moral judgment, rhetoric can ramp up rapidly and neck veins can begin to bulge. Tensions rise, and defensive postures are assumed.
Don’t let that happen. Be honest and reasonable, avoiding bitterness, sarcasm, or condescension. Express your defense of the moral position clearly, but don’t whack the other person upside the head. Stay calm and smile. The Holy Spirit might help you with this.
Even when discussing positions or policies that are a matter of prudential judgment — say, the best means to fund a downtown rehabilitation project or the latest state mandates on the COVID pandemic — let cooler and more reasonable minds prevail.
Commit to the full truth. Don’t cherry-pick facts and ignore evidence to the contrary, nor cite unsubstantiated reports drawn from the internet or hearsay. Data can be manipulated, and quotes can be taken out of context. Check facts against reputable sources first.
Listen more than speak. Dialogue is a two-way street. Allow alternate viewpoints a fair hearing. It is by coming to understand the reasoning behind opposing views that we can identify common ground, and that begins to close the breach that separates us. Civil dialogue is not about “winning” an argument, but about to bring all parties to recognize the truth and to draw closer to a mutually agreeable resolution.
Maintain a “civil tongue.” In today’s national political scene, name-calling, ridicule, and even profanity have become commonplace. Clever retorts and sarcastic zingers might amuse those who agree with you, but they won’t build bridges and might exacerbate divisions. Uncivility doesn’t make us look good either. Respectful conversation necessitates respectful language.
“When we direct insults toward another human being,” Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh wrote recently, “we degrade ourselves even more than we degrade that person—and we display an impoverished vocabulary.”
Respect the freedom of those who disagree. In a word, people have a right to their views and possess innate dignity even if they are objectively wrong. “God’s love for each person requires us to remember that someone who disagrees with us is still a beloved child of God who deserves our love, respect and care,” say the U.S. bishops in a statement from their Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate campaign.
Recognize the good intentions of others. Social and economic issues can be complex and defy simple remedies. People might agree on the problem but not on the solution. It helps to stay mindful that most people who have a deep interest in such questions are acting in good faith to arrive at the best possible answer.
“Dialogue is an expression of charity because, while not ignoring differences, it can help us investigate and share the common good,” Pope Francis has said.
Pray for those who deny moral truths. There are those who will not accept moral truths such as the humanity of the unborn child or God’s design for marriage. They may be of corrupt conscience, misinformed or simply ignorant. Your words might not sway them, but the Holy Spirit can. Pray for their enlightenment and change of heart.
Finally, be mindful that civility does not necessarily mean compromise. Respecting those who hold opposing views doesn’t mean we go soft on truth. Not all perspectives are equally valid. There might be times when a more impassionate argument needs to be advanced, and sometimes prudence calls for incremental successes.
How we communicate makes all the difference. If we do so in an annoying or off-putting manner, we will likely fail to reach anyone and might instead cause them to dig in their heels. If we do so civilly and reasonably, however, our conversations even on the most controversial issues can build mutual understanding and narrow ideological divisions.
And if enough of us do that, perhaps we can help change the present political climate and do our part to “form a more perfect union.”
Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic journalist, is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Indiana. He has 11 children and 15 grandchildren.
Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. Share your story by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Logos & Emblems
Fraternal Leader Advisory
Knights in Action
Share your Knights in Action News
Please contact the
Knights of Columbus News Bureau