I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Benjamin Cline at Western New Mexico University: How to Talk About Religion and Politics Without Being a Jerk. The world would be a better place, even without listening to the lecture, if we all wanted to try.
Cline discussed why our passions run so high on these topics: religion and politics are at the core of what makes life worth living for each of us. Our ideology is tied to what we see as the meaning of life. It is how we decide what’s valuable and what sources of information are valid. These topics are important and underlie much of what we do. Cline asks us to forget the old etiquette advice to avoid these subjects. He says we need to talk about them.
To discuss such deeply significant topics, you need a relationship with the person you are talking to; a jerk doesn’t care about relationships. Don’t use the jargon or buzz-words of your own ideology; a jerk insists on using terminology that the other person does not understand in the same way. Be willing to explain “why”. To paraphrase Cline, others may be curious why such a nice person as yourself holds such crazy beliefs. Suppress your own strong emotional reactions to what others say; a jerk gets offended easily. Accept that your own ideology influences how you see things; a jerk claims others are stupid, stubborn, and brainwashed without realizing that others see the jerk this same way. To not-be-a-jerk may mean letting another person be a jerk towards you without retaliating.
This all puts me in mind of a book reviewed on this site which said that “if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first.” And of an old poem which advises you to “speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant, for they too have their story.”
I find myself puzzling over jerk-ness a lot lately. Our public discourse seems so polarized it is hard to see how we will solve the problems of our day that evoke deep passions: Israel and Palestine, abortion, the meaning of marriage, our shared environment, poverty, teaching science….. the list seems long. We’re smart, creative, good people. We’ve got to talk.