On Public Discourse: Some Proposals

In order for a conversation between two people to be meaningful, a few standard elements usually need to be in place. These include, for example: respect for the other person, a desire to understand her perspective, a willingness to listen and be affected by his words, a posture of humble conviction, a love for truth. If private dialogue requires such commitments in order to flourish, how much more does public discourse – in events, social media, and the blogosphere – merit care and attention! 

Unfortunately, in an age of instant opinions and hair-trigger reactions, too often public discourse resembles more of a school cafeteria food fight than a passionate but reasoned conversation. Last week Jess Driesenga gave a helpful introduction to the concept of convicted civility; today I’d like to tease out a few more of its practical implications. Here are a few concrete proposals for habits to avoid and to cultivate in public discourse, especially when topics of gender and sexuality are concerned:

To Avoid: Reactionary outbursts of ill-informed outrage To Cultivate: Pausing to reflect, pray, and look for unseen nuance before jumping in

There is a time and a place for legitimate anger (such as, for example, when a white police officer fatally shoots an unarmed black teenager). Unfortunately, at other times what purports to be righteous indignation can actually be a social media frenzy of contrived offense. This is especially the case when a celebrity or pastor utters an inelegant statement or an institution makes a poor decision. The temptation to be the first out of the gate in making a critique is a very human one, but the picture can often look quite different once all the facts are in. Even when someone is clearly at fault, piling on the pique is not usually the best way to advance a conversation. Actually, it can have the unintended consequence of giving the offensive statement or action an unnecessarily long life of its own. After a little time and reflection, if you still feel some fire in your belly, maybe you should respond; but often it’s better just to roll your eyes and move on!

To Avoid: Waiting to see where others land before carving out the perfect middle ground To Cultivate: Responsive awareness and engagement with situations as they arise

Of course, the opposite extreme to reactionary outbursts is also unhelpful. Those of us whose personalities are more cautious (a personal confession!) face a different temptation: that of assuming a posture of being “above the fray” – uttering magnificent words of wisdom that are untainted by the messiness of our more bellicose, ignorant neighbors. And it is true that part of the pursuit of reconciliation involves patiently listening to others and seeking to synthesize the best of different perspectives. But the “perfect middle ground” is an elusive goal, and trying to live above the fray is both annoying and unfair to others who have courageously named their position and thoughtfully expressed their perspective. Put another way, only God has a God’s-eye view; the rest of us are always limited and fallible. So when engaging in public dialogue, we should aim to be nuanced and clear, remaining aware of (but not overly confined by) what others have said before us.

To Avoid: Parroting the politically correct opinions of your audience To Cultivate: Knowing your audience and addressing their concerns while challenging their assumptions

When we speak or write publicly, all of us have an audience in mind. And all but the most confident of us are at least somewhat concerned with how they will react to our message, comments, and ideas. To some extent, this is a good thing – sensitivity to and solidarity with the people with whom you are in dialogue can lead to exercising greater care in expressing both love and truth. Indeed, principled compassion and pastoral comfort both flourish when a writer or speaker cares about how others will respond to his or her words. But excessive concern with message reception can sometimes warp the content of that message – blunting its prophetic edges, smoothing over minority voices, and in general scratching the itching ears of one’s readers. Sometimes for their own good (and the health of the conversation), people’s underlying assumptions need to be called into question. But coddling an audience to increase one’s own popularity will never accomplish that.

To Avoid: A posture of smugness or self-promotion, especially when issuing a critique about matters of faith To Cultivate: A posture of joyful sobriety that takes your message (but not yourself) seriously

Just as pastoral comfort is not the same as patronizing coddling, so prophetic challenge is vastly different from prideful condemnation. One of the most disheartening and disgusting sights in public discourse occurs when a (self-appointed?) religious leader offers a rant about a person or group who disagrees with him or her in a way that both misrepresents that community and puffs him- or herself up at its expense. This is a far cry from the biblical prophets, who spoke with tremendous authority while maintaining deep humility. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and others were in awe of God, but not themselves; they waited for the divine call and executed it seriously, but they never forgot that they themselves were merely a youth, an exile, a shepherd, etc. All the more reason for us, who don’t claim to have the same authority but are trying to speak about the word of God as best as we can, to avoid an inflated view of ourselves. Accurate representation of the Scriptures goes hand in hand with accurate representation of those who view them differently than we do. And finding good friends who will help us laugh at ourselves is truly a gift of grace!

Properly cultivating these different habits can be a difficult needle to thread. But I, along with others at Level Ground, am convinced that a healthy public dialogue is desperately needed in our culture. Hopefully these proposals will constitute some small steps in the right direction.