How Politics Hurt Our Conversations
Everything is political nowadays. An embittered divide of us-versus-them marks our lives in almost every part, worst of all being in church life. When we speak to our neighbour, we speak as the politicians speak and say what the politicians say. We have all strayed from the course of proper communication, myself included, and forgotten how to argue with one another.
You might be surprised I would use a word such as argue to describe proper communication, but it's intentional. Stanley Fish, a legal scholar and prolific author, based his book, Winning Arguments, on the idea that every statement we make and every sentence we utter is a form of argument. He writes that arguments take many forms depending on the circumstances, and one argument in one circumstance will corrupt itself in another circumstance. Fish lays out four main kinds of arguments: political, domestic, legal, and academic. Each style works only in its particular setting and is dangerous if used in a different setting.
Concerning political arguments, he summarizes them as being not about what is factual but what is convincing. "I have the real facts; your facts are just your opinion!" is the essence of the argument. How that argument plays out takes different forms: attack the person instead of the idea, discredit the opponent because of personal flaws, appeal to popular opinion, appeal to morality, etc. It is highly emotional, not in an empathetic way, but in its structure. The political argument creates the facts.
In our current situation, political arguments have infiltrated our relationships, courts of law, and classrooms. Political arguments, however, destroy relationships, law, and academics. The point of an argument between a husband and wife is not always to find out who is right, but to empathetically reconcile opposing opinions. The point of a legal argument is not to find out who is more likeable but who is just and who is unjust. And the point of an academic argument is not to find the popular opinion or the least offensive ideas, but the best and strongest ideas. When political arguments infiltrate our relationships, courts of law, and classrooms, we all suffer.
How can we escape this?
A good explanation for why the political argument has infiltrated our lives is the government has become a god in society. As a result, political arguments fill our sources of influence, leading us to believe all arguments should be political, influencing us to use political arguments in our speech.
Perhaps the simple answer in light of Fish's observation is to keep political arguments in the political realm, but that is not an easy solution practically, nor does it get to the heart of the matter. The heart of our conversation is our hearts. Jesus taught that what we say indicates what we treasure, believe, and desire in our hearts (Matthew 12:34; 15:18).
The Christian response is humility. Humility is the ability to speak kindly, slowly, and truthfully all at once. It is an art in conversation, but it is not an art you or I perfect through rigorous discipline. We become humble when we put on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5), whose entire life on earth was marked by humility, submitting Himself to the Father and serving us through His death and resurrection. Humility is a frame of heart—one changed by Christ—willing to put others before us without self-promotion. In conversation, it helps us empathize with others, meaning our first reaction to someone with a different opinion or philosophy for life is empathy, not slander. Therefore, our responses should be slow and measured.
One way to practice humility in conversation is to embrace the other forms of argumentation, to engage in them at their level. That means, spend time empathizing with others in the form of a domestic argument. Spend time in an academic argument, engaging in ideas without emotionally connecting to them. Finally, spend time in a legal argument, pursuing true justice instead of what you feel is just.
As Christians, our conversation in this world directly represents our hearts and ultimately represents the world to which we belong. To be heavenly-minded does this world a whole lot of good. Heavenly minded people have Christ-filled hearts of humility, and Christ-filled hearts of humility have graceful, sincere, and truthful conversations.