Being civil in an uncivil world

“You’re an idiot and you talk too slow!” the talk radio host blurted out as he hung up on the caller. He hadn’t even let the guy on the phone finish his question, a reasonable question, before refusing to consider it, insult the man and move on to his next caller, someone the screener now made sure agreed with the political views of the show host. I do not listen often to talk radio, particularly political talk radio, except to monitor from time to time what the hot topics of the day are.

That exchange, which I heard recently, epitomized for me the polarization in our nation right now, not only politically, but also ethically and religiously.

That divisive and acrimonious spirit is demonstrated by an incivility and a refusal to dialogue constructively or offer any real effort at resolving our differences. Sadly, the state of civil discourse in our land has fallen on hard times. We have political parties who cannot work together to solve our budget issues. We have lock-outs and walk-outs, firings and hirings based on political persuasions, and protests and litmus tests for those who don’t agree with us.

What is it that keeps us from coming to the table with mutual respect to seek answers together as to what divides us? There are no ready, all inclusive answers to that question. In part however, it is that we have categorized those who disagree with us as the enemy. When someone is the “enemy” we hesitate to have civil discourse with them lest we appear to be compromising our convictions, acknowledging our weakness or surrendering to their point of view. And so we fall into the trap of doing what author G.K. Chesterton termed setting up “false devils” by labeling as evil those who disagree with us, thereby dismissing anything they have to say. Therefore, if they are an “idiot” why spend any time talking to them?

When I took logic in college I was warned about the ad hominem fallacy. In general that debate tactic is an attempt to negate the truth of a person’s claim by pointing out a negative characteristic in the person advocating it. For instance, if a person talks or sounds funny, we choose not to listen because we don’t like the way they are saying it – e.g. they “talk too slow. ”

The “false devil” characterization like setting up a false god, invariably leads us astray. We cut ourselves off from hearing and seeing what God may want to reveal to us about them or through them.

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