Discussing Morality and Politics: How to Have Constructive Conversation

The following post, written by The Rev. Robert A. Franek, is a part of Politicus Policy Discussion, in which writers draw connections between real lives and public policy.

Where and how is one to have constructive political discourse that is rooted in our deepest moral values? This is a question that is perennially on my mind. While I believe that communities of faith would be ideal places for these conversations, the dynamics within many faith communities present an array of challenges. Many do not want to be seen as being political while others cross ethical lines of endorsement. And most are plagued with the tyranny of nice that inhibits all kinds of difficult and constructive conversations.

It’s also hard to find constructive conversation modeled in our society. Cable news thrives on false equivalency and hype that sells advertising. Editorials and letters to the editor often traffic in talking points instead of engaging policy substance and nuance. Talk radio is the epitome of right wing spin, while NPR keeps the left calm and collected with softer voices and soothing musical interludes. However, no one is talking about policy and values consistently and substantively.

Every family seems to have the nonconformist on either the right or left depending. So beginning at home can also be difficult. And if one reaches out to social media, be careful. Twitter is full of trolls and Facebook meme sharing is not going to convince anyone of anything, especially since many are either completely false or lacking necessary context.

Often all that remains is an echo chamber of like minded people sharing ideas everyone in the group already accepts. While this can be helpful for affirmation and encouragement is it not going to make for significant policy change. This requires coming together across partisan ideologies for the benefit of all people and the planet we share.

Still, I have hope.

I do believe that constructive conversation on the morality of public policy can happen in a variety of forums from faith and civic groups to family dinners, even on social and mass media platforms. But these discussions can only happen if the people engaging in the conversation are committed to working toward the common good for all from the grounding of shared moral values.

This begins with recognizing the humanity and dignity of every person. Never attack another person. Keep the discussion focused on ideas around shared values. This alone has the power to revolutionize the tenor of discourse among family and friends and throughout various media outlets.

Enter the conversation with a spirit of confidence and humility.  Be confident in what you know or you risk being blown about like a leaf in the wind. But also be open and receptive to new ideas and perspectives on an issue. We all have limitations on what we know and can benefit from listening to another’s perspective and possibly learning something new.

Listen. I say it again. It cannot be said enough. So often we listen to reply and not to understand. We all must work on listening less defensively and more attentively to one another. Through attentive listening we show honor and respect for all involved in the discussion.

These are but starting points for constructive dialogue on matters of morality and public policy. But we all need to start somewhere. I believe this is a good place to begin.

If we are going to address the tough issues of our day including gun violence, voting rights, climate change, poverty, homelessness, rape culture, and reforms in the criminal justice and immigration systems, we must learn to talk to one another respectfully around shared moral values while working towards a common goal, namely the common good for all.  The details of policy will surface as we are guided by our shared moral values.

I am convinced that when we find our common cause around our deepest shared values we will be able to engage in constructive conversation. Through this dialog and attentive listening, I believe we will discover ways to perfect our ideas for crafting policy that reflects the moral values we hold in common.