I have been concerned for some time that our dominant mode of political engagement and political conversation are deeply destructive. If you are reading this, you probably agree. However, de-escalating our political rhetoric is difficult to do. I want to reflect just briefly about why that is the case, and develop a short set of rules about how I will participate.
Why am I writing this down? This is not intended to illustrate my moral superiority. Instead, this is my way of telling you exactly the mistakes that I find most tempting. We Christians believe confession is good for the soul.
More broadly, there are two reasons this might be helpful to others. First, I want to start a conversation about what charitable and professional engagement looks like. Some of you are a lot more thoughtful about this stuff than I am. Second, I want to have this on the record, so that you can hold me accountable. Politics on the internet is volatile, in part, because these conversations are all public. It is really easy to get defensive when we disagree with each other. But at the same time, at its best, this means that we can be corrected by our friends when we mess up.
Here is my list:
1. I will speak from my expertise.
One of the easiest ways for me to elevate the conversation around me is to try to contribute primarily in areas that I have some deep knowledge. This means that, while I care about many political issues, you will see me post about economic policy, education, animal ethics, and the welfare state more often than gun control, abortion, race, or sexuality. I am far more likely to spot bad arguments, avoid straw men, and know what the good arguments are when I am working in an area that I live in as a teacher and scholar.
2. I will engage the very best of my intellectual and political opponents.
One of the polarizing elements of our media environment is that political leaders and media personalities have every incentive to highlight the very worst behavior on the other side and the very best behavior on their own side. As a result, when we think about our political opponents, we tend to immediately picture an extreme monolithic caricature. When we picture our own side, we see a big diverse tent of different ideas, thoughtful arguments, and virtuous leaders. Just as a matter of self-discipline, then, I want to commit to always seeking out the most thoughtful among those that I disagree with, and the best reasons for the positions I do not share.
3. I will not question motivations or character.
There are probably plenty of places where people are demonstrating an utter lack of character in public life. There are plenty of people acting with corrupt motivations. I think the character of our leaders is really important. However, I must start every conversation assuming the best about those I am in dialogue with, or the conversation is going to be more of a performance than a quest for understanding. Even further, I am not going to be the guy that tells you who is corrupt and untrustworthy among our leaders. Sometimes that needs to be done, but I have decided that it just isn’t my job.
4. I will admit when I am wrong.
It is really easy for pride to take over when you are participating in an online conversation. Again, this is all public, so when we are challenged, it is easy to get defensive. It is really easy to just try to win, or to retreat. When I post something that I later think is incomplete, I will try to post something complementary that offers a different view. If I post something incorrect or if I misinterpret someone, I should apologize. This one is hard.
If I think things are so bad (and I do) you might wonder why I don’t just retreat? Leave social media. Focus on my teaching and academic writing. There are two answers. First, I figure if someone who spends their life studying this hard political issues can’t engage well, what hope do we have? So this feels like a professional obligation sometimes. Second, I really care about a lot of the people I am in conversation with. I want the conversation to be better, so it behooves me to give it a go.
Let me know what you think should be on the list. What rules do you set for yourself?