It has never been easier to have a voice in the public square. Virtually anyone with access to the internet can make his (or her) ideas and opinions known to hundreds or thousands or even millions of people. And of course, there are still older forms of print communication with a large following—books, journals, magazines, newsletters, and the like. It would seem that more people are talking to each other about more things than ever before.
Or are we just talking past each other?
There will always be people who disagree with each other. That’s not necessarily a problem. And there will always be people who make bad arguments. That’s inevitable. But if we are interested in debating ideas (not just destroying people) and interested in persuading (not just performing), we will try our imperfect best to speak and write in a way that aims to be clear, measured, and open to reason.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Venting one’s spleen is easy; cultivating a disciplined life of the mind is hard.
So how do we get off the rails? How does the noble pursuit of truth turn into a hot mess of hurt feelings and recriminations? How should we not debate ideas in the public square?
Here are eight bad ideas when it comes to communicating our ideas in public:
1. Take everything personally.
I’ve learned over the years that anyone anywhere could be reading what I write or listening to what I preach. That means I try to be sensitive to the fact that people with different objections and different experiences may be on the other end of my communication. I do not want to needlessly alienate or offend. And yet, no writer or speaker can possibly anticipate every bad experience someone may associate with what is said. We’ve all suffered loss, and we’ve all been hurt—some more than others. Basic human decency says, “Let’s try not to make things worse.” At the same time, basic commonsense says, “Let’s not expect everyone else to know everything I’ve been through, and let’s not read my own sensitivities back into someone else’s motives or ideas.” In other words, try not to hurt people, and try not to be the sort of person who is easily hurt.
2. Turn everything up to 11.
If you want to rally a loyal core of followers and alienate most everyone else, crank up the rhetorical dial on everything you say and write. Get angry quickly, scold constantly, and be eager to die on every hill. We may think that we are helping the cause by making every controversy sound like the Battle of Britain and every opponent resemble the evil eye of Sauron, but in the end such rhetoric is usually self-defeating. Most people don’t want to live in a state of unrelenting intensity, and most issues are not as important as stopping Hitler’s conquest of Europe. If you want to be an effective communicator (over the long haul), move up and down the emotional register. Save 11 for when you really need it.
3. Assume your experience is the way things really are.
Most of us do it to some extent: we look at the world figuring the world as we’ve experienced it is normal. If we’ve been treated fairly most of the time, we assume the world is pretty fair. If we’ve worked hard and got ahead, we think others should be able to do the same. If we’ve seen good authority or have been in positions of authority, we tend to trust authority. On the other hand, if we’ve been betrayed by those in authority, we tend to assume the worst about persons in authority. If we’ve been lied to and abused, we tend to see abusers and enablers around every corner. If we’ve been hurt by conservative Christians, we may be especially wary of conservative Christianity. And on and on. Of course, our experiences—good, bad, and ugly—can be powerful motivators, pushing us to guard against theological error or speak out against dangerous people and patterns. But we must not assume that our experience has been everyone’s experience. We must be careful not to present assumptions as facts. We must not let a wonderful “normal” make us blind to corruption and evil, nor should we allow our painful “normal” to so color our vision that we take down people who do not deserve our wrath.
4. Refuse to deal in nuance.
Complex problems rarely have simple explanations, and even more infrequently do they have simple solutions. If the solutions were easy—especially for problems that everyone would like to see changed—they probably would have been implemented by now. People are usually multilayered, a mixture of good and bad and everything in between. History is usually complicated, filled with villains who get some things right and heroes who get some things wrong. And explaining why things are the way they are is not always straightforward. Monocausal explanations for social ills and societal trends are rarely right. The better explanation for the way things are the way they are is usually a combination of personal choices, cultural forces, intellectual assumptions, technological innovations, and a staggering array of different experiences, opportunities, gifts, abilities, advantages, and disadvantages.
5. Make everything about everything.
Our communication will never be profitable if we expect every article or every post or every book to say everything that needs to be said. We must be able to focus on a specific topic, debate, or idea without insisting that our opponents provide a caveat for every possible exception, a paragraph for every possible hurt, and an answer to every related problem. Of course, we don’t want to be ignorant about the various connecting ideas (see “nuance” above) or indifferent to the various questions people might raise, but we have to be able to deal rationally with the issue at hand. It’s okay to talk about one thing at a time.
6. Discount individuals and their ideas based on their group identity.
Although individualism can be of the dangerous expressive type, there is also a good kind of individualism. As Christians, we believe that each person is made in God’s image, that each person is responsible for his or her actions, and that each person will stand as an individual before God. To be sure, we are more than individuals. Being a man or a woman, an American or a Pakistani, a Black upper-class father or a White lower-class single mother shapes who we are and how we see things. But we should not dismiss other people’s arguments because the one making those arguments is male or female, Black or White, rich or poor. Bad arguments are bad even when our tribe makes them, and good arguments are good even when they come from the group we’ve been told we cannot trust. Argue with ideas not with stereotypes.
7. Pay no attention to the type of communication you are having.
As digital communication has gotten easier, the lines of demarcation between different kinds of communication has gotten fuzzier. This confusion can be found across different digital platforms (i.e., using Twitter for intricate and emotionally charged debates), but it also stretches across entirely different modes of communication. I’ve had people say to me before, “I read that article. Is that how you would counsel someone struggling with X?” But of course, a book or a blog post is written to a general audience not to a specific person. When talking in person in a private setting, you can ask questions, read facial gestures, ask for follow up, express sympathy, say a prayer, listen to someone’s story, and acknowledge pain. Public communication should not be rude and uncaring, but it will always be to some degree impersonal. When we load all means of discourse with therapeutic expectations—held hostage by the emotional needs of those listening or speaking—we treat books and articles and reviews and sermons as private encounters, just on a larger scale, instead of different kinds of communication altogether.
8. Forget that your opponents are real people.
I’m sure I’ve told this story before. Soon after I started blogging I wrote a snarky article about another Christian leader. A few days later I was speaking at a conference, and to my surprise I was sharing the platform with someone who worked with this leader. The man confronted me about what I had written. As much as I didn’t enjoy that interaction, it was the Lord’s grace to me. It reminded me of what I should have known but so many of us forget, that the people I disagree with are still real people. I’m sure I haven’t done it perfectly, but since that interaction over a decade ago I’ve always tried to think as I write or speak, “Is this what I would say and how I would say it if this person or these people were in the room? Would I be embarrassed to run into this person at a conference next week?” That doesn’t mean we cannot challenge each other in books and in blog posts. It doesn’t mean we cannot say hard or even pointed things to and about each other. But that lesson many years ago cemented in my brain that even famous people—athletes, movie stars, politicians, well-known Christians—are flesh and blood human beings. They may be better or worse than I think, but they have feelings too and are deserving of basic decency and respect.