A Plea for Civil Discourse

So. Much. Anger. No matter where you turn today, angry people seem to dominate discourse. It has become extremely difficult to find a reasonable discussion that focuses on facts, thought, reason, and balance—regardless of the subject matter. The entire temperament of society currently revolves around having a “hot take” rather than having an informed opinion. Clearly many people cannot tell the difference between persuasive and abrasive. In sports (when we had sports), instead of in-depth analysis, we have to settle for a series of opinions often justified by analytics that ignore all kinds of differences between rules, situations, and eras. Even then, yelling seems to be the preferred method of communicating these opinions. The realm of politics has taken the same track. Most programs—whether television, radio, or internet—exist either to attack their political opponents or create an atmosphere so divisive that toxicity oozes out of your device enough to stain the carpet. If you turn to social media, you find more of the same—just more personal. People on Twitter and Facebook have adopted the polarized atmosphere of big media and normalized bitter disputes over sometimes meaningless opinions. In this it would be good to remember that “The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil” (Prov. 15:28).

The problem is that we have bought into two concepts that, when combined, lead to a highly combustible environment. First, people take the mantra that “every man has the right to his own opinion” to such ferocious and sometimes ridiculous levels that they lose sight of far more important principles. As a result, they will quickly share information they have clearly not evaluated thoroughly simply because it agrees with their uninformed opinion and post conclusions that reflect inadequate study. Second, people begin treating every election, every issue, every doctrine, and every opinion as if the existence of civilization, the church, and the truth depends upon arguing over rather inconsequential matters; they focus on defending “their side” rather than discovering truth; and they assume that having the right opinion justifies a very wrong method and manner. In short, people have retreated into defensive positions, and insulated by distance, they then feel comfortable hurling verbal grenades from their digital foxholes. Solomon wisely penned, “A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). Our words can either provoke anger in others or encourage calm. We can either “come out fighting” or approach people respectfully and reasonably.

It saddens me so much to witness the divisiveness so eagerly embraced by my fellow citizens who currently seem incapable of balance, decency, and fairness when addressing those with whom they disagree. More than that, it hurts deeply to see the same characteristics missing among God’s people who appear more interested in scoring points in debate than in Christlikeness. Disagreement, whether political or doctrinal, will continue until Judgment Day comes. That is not an excuse; it is simply a reality. But that reality means that we have the responsibility to learn how to handle disagreement the right way, the godly way (Prov. 15:23). In verse eighteen of the same chapter, Solomon wrote, “A wrathful man stirs up strife, But he who is slow to anger allays contention” (Prov. 15:18). We do not have to answer every post with which we disagree. And when we do try to correct someone we should do so without anger and with a tone that seeks to avoid contention. 

We must learn to rethink how we handle disagreement, and that begins with reconsidering the purpose of the interaction. We tend to speak from our own cocoons too much. We gain boldness within the intellectual walls of our own limited experience, knowledge, and influences. Therefore, we come to see any disagreement or difference as an attack on our honor rather than as a potentially sincere misunderstanding—despite the fact that we often know very little about the people with whom we are disagreeing. We assume the worst of motives in others while assigning the best of motives to ourselves (1 Cor. 13:4-7). This is both self-congratulatory and self-defeating. We imprison ourselves in the dungeon of our own ignorance.

Friends, there is another way. We can still stand for truth while speaking lovingly and respectfully. We can oppose error while recognizing that a person is sincere and simply mistaken. We can correct erroneous posts while still loving the people who made them. We can be bold and respectful at the same time. We can love people and not compromise at the same time. Compassion and reason can indeed coexist. They reside peacefully in the character of God, and His people should model that beauty. “The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the LORD, But the words of the pure are pleasant” (Prov. 15:26).

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