Pursuing Constructive Public Dialogue in 2017

With the presidential inauguration just days away, we’ve all witnessed how polarized our conversations have become. Nowhere is this truer than on social media. For many of us, social media has become a normal part of our daily life. This constant exposure to quarrels and conflicts has a remarkably destructive effect on our capacity to engage in thoughtful dialogue.

In James K. A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom, he explains that we are creatures “shaped, primed, and aimed” by our daily practices. Similarly, in Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue that covers the relationship between our love and our rhetorical practices, Plato defines rhetoric as “the art of soul leading by means of words.” We should be worried about the effect that these emotionally difficult and polarizing conversations have on our character.   

So, what are we to do? Should we retreat to our own corner of the digital landscape, invoking the Internet equivalent of the Benedict option? Another option at our fingertips is to double our efforts. Should we adopt the approach of the evangelistic and apologetic Internet ministries? We could don our presuppositional armor and brandish our rhetorical weapons and charge into war. Every tweet, like, and shared news article can become a battlefield. While both of these tactics are used frequently, I propose another way forward.

What if we took charge of our use of language and argument and used these digital interactions as opportunities to practice gracious, civil speech that builds community up rather than tearing it apart? Now that we know our goal, we have already moved toward it. The first step is amassing an awareness of the power of our words. For people to take what they say seriously, they first must realize that words are a force that change the world by galvanizing and directing people toward various ends.

Next, it would be wise for us to begin to acquire techniques that enable us to disarm rhetorical techniques that ruin civil dialogue before it even begins. One of the most common techniques is what rhetorician Richard Weaver called ultimate terms, words like, ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘modern’, ‘scientific’, and ‘fact’. These are words with definitions that stretch across worldviews. As ultimate terms, they can serve as an automatic approval or dismissal of an argument. Without even reading what someone says, we assume we know where someone is coming from and what they believe when we see these words. Furthermore, we put these terms to work in our own arguments to galvanize our own tribe to defend us. They serve as rallying cries for those we agree with and as targets for those who find our position disagreeable.

The more articulate we become, the more prepared we will be to exemplify what healthy civic dialogue looks like.

To distinguish between these different terms, Weaver presents two categories: god-terms and devil-terms. God-terms, are “any word or expression about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate and serving dominations and powers.” Devil-terms are typically defined as, “terms of repulsion…[that] no survey of vocabulary can ignore...the personification of the adversary.” So, it seems that it is not our use of these terms that is destructive, but our willingness to take part in their unexamined use.

As we learn to interact with these terms carefully, we will see the effect this will have on our character. This ability to handle words with care is no small thing. It requires patience to sit with the word of another without writing them off immediately. It requires tolerance to willingly engage with posts and tweets that push all of our buttons. It requires humility to admit mistakes in public when they appear in our own arguments. It requires courage to embark on this journey of rhetorical wisdom despite how easy it would be to remain ignorant and unconcerned.

Despite all of this, it can be easy to ignore rhetoric and focus our attention on concrete actions we can take to change the world. If we do this, we fail to realize that our situation is similar to Daniel’s evocative interactions with the Babylon court. Similarly, we see rhetoric used by Christ himself as he spoke an alternative world into existence, which was carried on by the words and actions of his disciples. Part of what it means for Christians to be active in the pursuit of God’s vision of a flourishing society is to speak winsomely. We must learn how to speak creatively about the value that Christian principles bring to the public sphere.

The more articulate we become, the more prepared we will be to exemplify what healthy civic dialogue looks like. May our speech be aimed at the flourishing kingdom that Christ speaks and may others be caught up in that kingdom when they hear us speak. Whether it be a twitterstorm, or on your Aunt’s Facebook post; may you wield the force of your words with the wisdom and grace to sustain the relationships that are necessary for a thriving, constructive public dialogue.

-Jarrod Phipps is a human, husband, and philosopher finishing up an Mdiv at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA.