Don’t be a Jerk – discussing politics, religion, and policy

DebatingSocThis is a repost, but I think it applies more than ever: I 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 if we all tried.

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.  They underlie much of what we do.  Our ideology is tied to the meaning of life as we each see it.  It’s our basis for deciding what’s valuable and what sources of information to trust.  Cline asks us to forget the old etiquette advice to avoid these subjects.  We need to talk about them, and to succeed we need to stop being jerks.

  • Before discussing such deeply significant topics, build a relationship with the person you’re 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.
  • Suppress your own strong emotional reactions to what others say; a jerk gets offended easily.
  • Be willing to explain “why”.  To paraphrase Cline, others may be curious why such a nice person as yourself holds such crazy beliefs.
  • 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 that 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 that it’s hard to see how we’ll solve problems that evoke passion:  Israel and Palestine, abortion, the meaning of marriage, our shared environment, poverty, teaching science, gun violence… the list seems long.  We’re smart, creative, good people, though, and we’ve got to talk.

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