Patriot – “One who loves his country and zealously guards its welfare.” Webster’s Concise Dictionary of the English Language, 1997
On this July 4 we look back at Resolution 108, passed by the American Bar Association, in 2011. The ABA warned then that “political discourse continues to spiral to unprecedented levels of acrimony and venom”, and that “orderly debate all too often is giving way to invective, distortion and gamesmanship”. Six years later the tension and heat in many quarters have only increased.
Why should we care? As the report behind the resolution points out, a toxic political discourse leaves citizens frustrated, disillusioned, and angry; the problems of our society go unsolved; the rule of law is threatened, and some turn to violence.
If we care about the health and future of our country, then we need to focus on how we talk with each other – as individuals, as political parties, and government and citizens. Three things we can do, especially as individuals and citizens:
- Ask Questions. The questions to ask are open-ended ones, not the sarcastic “Why are you so stupid?’ or “Who knew you were so dumb?” questions often used to shut down others. Open ended questions sound like “I’m curious as to why you would say that, can you tell me more?”, “What information are you relying on?”, “What do you fear would happen and why?” These questions invite further dialogue if sincerely asked and the answers received with some level of respect for the speaker. Sometimes the best questions to open-up the conversation are simply definitional – “how do you define ‘being an American?'” “what do you mean by “conservative”/”liberal”?” Other times a question that simply focuses forward can change the conversation, for example, “What would you like to see happen over time? Why?”
- Speak-Up for Civility And Model It Yourself. We don’t support bullies in schools and we shouldn’t in our public life either. Bullies often back down if someone standing by is willing to call them out. What if more of us were willing to speak up and also to vote against bullying behavior even by those politicians with whom we agree? Or if we actually rewarded efforts at more informed and civil discourse at the polls? We can also plant the seeds for more civic discourse in our conversations with friends and family by speaking up and responding to hateful or bullying speech. Simple phrases like “that kind of speech is not helpful”, “if we can’t speak civilly I will leave”, or “I love you and have experiences that give me a different perspective, which I hope some day we can share”, may not immediately change the speaker, although they can change the course of the conversation over time. Speaking up often will encourage others present to respond in constructive ways as well.
- Learn and Use “Stories of Wisdom.” Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Hate doesn’t drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Much of our political discourse is hateful. Recognize those patterns and avoid responding in kind. Stories of wisdom offer an alternative pattern, one that can help you to both acknowledge the underlying concerns that affect us all and re-frame divisive arguments.
How does a patriot talk about the problems that face our country? With care, with compassion, with a willingness to learn, and with the hope that if we listen to each other and work together we can heal our divides and improve our future.