I’m right and you’re stupid.
These days, it’s very difficult to have a conversation with someone on a controversial topic. We have become very polarized. We have lost civility. Have you noticed how often “discussions” on social media end with personal insults? And no one learns anything.
This problem has become amplified with the main news story of the last two years: COVID-19. To mask or not to mask? To vaccinate or not to vax? Can I force you to get a shot?
In theory, a classical liberal discussion would be between well-meaning people, using their opinions derived from well-reasoned principles and using well-sourced facts. Today, we just don’t see that happening often.
What went wrong? We used to be able to talk about things and not lose friends. Our society has lost touch with the classical liberal values of freedom of expression and opinion. The great innovation of Liberalism was the ability to speak one’s mind without fear. The word “liberal” itself can be traced back to the Latin word liber meaning “free” (not to be confused with “free stuff”) It is also the root of the word liberty.
So how do we talk about Covid? To start, we must assume the other person is not evil and just has different opinions. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, “There are some very good people who promote some very bad ideas. We should attack the bad ideas with better ideas.”
We can attack the bad ideas without insulting the person. But first, we have to establish a rapport with the person. Let them know that you don’t think badly of them, but you just don’t understand their point of view. Ask to be educated. To many, this is very disarming. If they were ready to do battle with a bad person, their opinion of you may start to change and it may be possible to talk.
Let them start. At the heart of an opinion is a well-reasoned principle, a misunderstanding, or a fear. That misunderstanding may be from relying on the opinion of others or just bad facts. Find it. Don’t criticize the person for having the opinion, and don’t ask why they think that way. Save that for later. Don’t make it personal. Talk about the opinion.
Examples of questions are:
“I don’t understand how that’s true, but if it is, what are you afraid will happen?”
“That’s interesting! I’ve never heard that. Where did you hear it?”
Try not to laugh when they quote a network or newspaper you know is biased. Ask if they remember who said it so you can research it and find out more. Don’t ridicule the media source of their information. They may take that as a personal insult.
When it’s your turn to explain your opinion, start with the well-reasoned principle or the fear, and then apply it to the topic of conversation. Let’s take mandatory vaccinations, for example. One might say, “I believe that my body is my most precious possession and no one, not the government, not even my doctor, has the right to put something in my body that I don’t approve of. If I lose control of my body, I am no longer free. If you will allow others to control your body, that’s your choice. That’s the only disagreement we have.”
In this example, there is no name calling, no accusations, no dueling studies or any facts at all. There is nothing here that should “offend” the person you are talking to.
There are those who are offended by anyone who disagrees with them. While it may take longer to find, there is still probably someone in there you can reason with.
A few years ago, NPR published a story about Daryl Davis, a Black man who for 30 years has spent time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. He says that two hundred Klansmen have given up their robes after talking with him.
“If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be about anything…you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.”
The full, fascinating article can be found here.
There is a difference between a conversation and a debate. You don’t have to do much preparation for a conversation. And please don’t agree to a debate until you are ready with your principles, definitions, and facts.
Civility is the key to a true conversation for the classical liberal.
[To hear this article in the author’s own voice, please click here.]
Eric L. Bolves is an attorney at law and the managing real estate broker with Engel & Voelkers Orlando, Florida. His practice areas include Elder Law, Bankruptcy and Disability. He is frequently appointed by Judges as an Attorney Adlitem in foreclosure cases to represent the interests of heirs and members of the military.