Speaking Civilly

Barbara McCracken, OSB

Editor's note: Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica write a weekly column titled "View from the Mount" for our hometown newspaper, the Atchison Globe. This column appeared in the Sept. 17, 2016, edition of the Globe.

Sister Barbara McCrackenThis election season is like no other the country has ever seen. Civil discourse has fallen to a new low. We all need to do what we can to rescue and elevate the tone of our political talk.

The Benedictine Sisters of Mount St Scholastica are keenly aware of the need to restore civil discourse during this election campaign. Benedictines try to listen with the ear of the heart and then speak the truth with both heart and tongue.

Restoring civil discourse is a primary task not only for candidates, but for all who engage in political talk. Common courtesy grounded in respect for the other person or group never goes out of style. The common good demands courteous interchange. 

Democracy needs civil discourse to thrive. Only then can democracy be maintained in this election cycle. Political discourse is at the center of civic life, our very democracy requires that we strive to both listen deeply and engage in respectful dialogue.

What has caused the problem? Everyone can see the tone of political dialogue has been in decline for some time, especially in Congress and many state legislatures. Now it has become embarrassing to hear. One has to look around to make sure no children are listening. 

Experts say there is an underlying culture that demands simple black and white answers to the very complex issues of the day. For example, the Islamic State cannot be confronted without some knowledge of Islam and history of the Middle East. Such issues need to be examined with insight and then actions taken to solve such a threat step by step. 

We need the help of scholars and historians to understand the causes of the huge refugee crisis the world faces today. Without some knowledge of the causes, solutions and ways to help become so frustrating that most do nothing. Too much frustration can lead to anger and violence. Attributing false motivation to an opponent or revising history to suit one’s own wishes never promotes dialogue. Often truth is denied because trust is lacking. 

No one needs to be exposed to false information that is repeated ad nauseam. Repeating lies over and over does not create truth. The Cardinal of Washington DC, Donald Wuerl, recently said, “To tamper with the truth or, worse yet, to pervert it, is to undermine the foundations of human community and to begin to cut the threads that weave us into a coherent human family.“

Getting hot under the collar is very difficult to avoid this election season. Speaking in anger solves nothing. What needs to be eliminated? Do what you can to halt name-calling, gross exaggeration, insults, shouting, using defaming words, dismissing another’s views. Repeating a falsehood in order to counter it is usually not helpful. Just state the truth clearly and respectfully without mentioning the opponent. Remember, no single group or person has all the truth. 

To foster the basic rules of dialogue we all need to learn to listen carefully and respectfully. Even more vital, speak carefully and respectfully, starting with our values. When Pope Francis spoke to Congress he reminded all of us, “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”

Vote. Vote even if you need to grit your teeth and squint your eyes. It is your duty…and it will help preserve our fragile democracy.

For more thoughts on civil political talk, check out the writings of George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science and linguistics, on political debate and messaging.