Our republic has a problem. Commentators have commented on it, pundits have pontificated on it—it could be the death of our society. What is this issue that could destroy our country? It is, simply, the death of civil discourse. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has been the most recent leader to address this societal problem.
Since her appointment, Ambassador Haley has become a conservative “rock star” for her stunning speeches on the UN floor. At an event at The Heritage Foundation this month, the Ambassador called the UN Human Rights Council, a council which currently includes egregious human rights violators Iran and the Congo, a “cesspool of political bias.” She has defended Israel—America’s main ally in the Middle East—countless times against its detractors in the UN.
Now Ambassador Haley is advising conservatives on their approach to debating and discussing ideas with those who may disagree. In a recent speech to a group of conservative high schoolers at the Turning Point USA conference at George Washington University, she commented on a recent trend by young people on social media: “Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to quote-unquote ‘own the libs.’” For those not up-to-date with modern slang, in this context, to “own” someone is to render them unable to reasonably reply to a sarcastic statement or zinger.
Quite a few students raised their hands and a few cheered. The ambassador then explained her view of the tactic: “I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this—are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading? We’ve all been guilty of it at some point or another, but this kind of speech isn’t leadership—it’s the exact opposite.” Instead, Ambassador Haley offered her own definition of leadership: “Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view. Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”
Ambassador Haley’s words line up perfectly with what Scripture says (which is not surprising, as she is a Christian). In the book of Proverbs, Solomon advises his son that “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” He then warns that the opposite, “harsh words,” only “stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Peter writes to his readers that they should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” and to “do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
The fundamental issue here is how we conduct discourse. Disagreements should never become merely a platform for “zingers” in and of themselves. When one or both sides resort to name calling and/or mocking their opponent rather than using reason to persuade, nothing of any value is accomplished. For example, suppose a conservative (or liberal) posts a political statement on Facebook or another social media platform, and a commenter on the other side of the aisle replies nastily to the post. The original poster has three options: not replying, replying with the same amount of ire, or replying with the purpose of persuasion. If the poster replies with “gentleness and respect,” there is a good chance that their original argument will get a fair hearing. Obviously, civil discourse needs two participants, and the commenter may not comply, but Scripture demands that we at least try to respectfully persuade our opponents.
If our culture really is coming apart at the seams, as some commentators are bemoaning, then conservatives adding to the cacophony of empty rhetoric will certainly not aid in tamping down the culture war vitriol. If conservatives are correct, than we should be comfortable voicing our opinions reasonably. At the end of the day, resorting to “owning” our opponents with one liners and zingers will not convince anyone of the rightness of our side. Let us resurrect civil discourse for the future our of country.