Some people think that discussions of some topics are always ugly. They think that the best way to avoid this ugliness is simply to avoid talking about politics, religion, money, or sex. But if you can’t talk about religion, then you can’t talk about what you think is true and what you think is right. If you can’t talk about money or sex, then you can’t talk about what you want. If you can’t talk about politics, then you can’t talk about what you think should happen. Worse yet, you would have no way to work with others to make the good things happen.
The idea that people shouldn’t talk about politics always struck me as antidemocratic. In the United States, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives us freedom of speech and of the press. It gives us the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. Those are important rights that can and should be used, even if they occasionally make other people uncomfortable.
Political Rhetoric Is Getting Worse
Political conversations in the United States tend to be ugly and seem to be getting uglier. Many of our commercial media outlets have stopped even pretending to be practicing serious, fair‐minded journalism. Television and radio “personalities” are providing horrible models for how to discuss sensitive topics. They spout nonsense. They interrupt their guests. They mock and unfairly smear anyone who disagrees with them. Somehow, many decent people don’t notice how horrible such behavior is. This kind of discourse has become the new normal.
I’ve heard many people complain that political discussions in the United States are bound to be ugly because we supposedly have a “cultural divide” or even a “culture war.” That sounds like a flimsy excuse to me. Differences of opinion do not make it okay to lie and to call people bad names. The fact that there are differences of opinion means that we need to have productive conversations, not that we should avoid sensitive topics.
Ugly Debating Tactics
Our political discussions are ugly because people use ugly debating tactics, not because they are talking about sensitive topics. Propagandists often use these ugly debating tactics on purpose. I think that other people often resort to those tactics either because they think they are normal and acceptable or because they are frustrated that their other attempts at persuasion didn’t work. The solution to this problem is not to avoid political discussions but to help people learn how civilized people use discussions to find truth and resolve conflicts.
Learn How to Have Civilized Conversations
Ancient Athens had a political system that was called democracy, which meant rule by the people. To make this system work, the ancient Greeks had to figure out the rules for how to have reasonable discussions about important topics. To teach their sons these rules, the ancient Greeks developed some important disciplines, such as logic and rhetoric. The ancient Romans embraced these disciplines. They called them the liberal arts, which means the studies for freeborn men, as opposed to slaves. Today, slavery is illegal. But for people to be truly free, they need to learn these basic disciplines. I explain them in detail in my book Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free.
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