Kerby: To be the rock in rough waters

Steve Kerby, Staff Columnist

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The best piece of theater from the past year was a pantomime puppet show I saw at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago.

The show was “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and told the tale of a tin soldier’s journey to find his way back home after being lost. It might sound juvenile, but a moral suddenly arises at the end of the show and beautifully stitches together every thread; the antagonists, while they might have seemed mindless and evil, have their own stories. The scheming rat and the conniving jack-in-the-box only seem one-dimensional because we don’t know their scars. If we understood them a bit more, they might not appear so vile.

There are numerous opportunities in our daily lives for productive and healthy discussion of pertinent political and cultural issues, but there’s very little evidence that those important topics receive the examination they deserve. When the face of public debate is talking heads shouting on Fox News or members of Congress taking cheap shots at Americans, it’s no wonder most people avoid strenuous rhetorical exercise. I’ve noticed a few simple steps that can make difficult conversations more bearable and perhaps entice the disenchanted back to the table to share their point of view.

There is nothing easier than imagining that the antagonists of your life are black-hearted villains. By highlighting their many personal flaws, their ideas can be discarded immediately as unworthy because the people presenting them are terrible. Especially in the current charged atmosphere, debate across the aisle, or even across the dinner table, can be instantly derailed by viewing opponents as monsters.

Consider Hillary Clinton’s famous “basket of deplorables” gaffe; it revealed a disdain for American citizens that is unbecoming of a presidential candidate. Perhaps more importantly, our current president, Donald Trump, portrays members of the news media as “enemies of the people” simply for doing their job.

These derogatory characterizations never support honest discussion. To support useful debate, discard any approach that begins with personal attacks. No one’s views on a controversial topic were built in a day. Rather, they were constructed from various experiences and stimuli over an extended period of time. Treating your opponents like vermin will only harden their resolve and resentment, but extending a hand in friendship leaves open the possibility for slowly rolling back their viewpoint and possibly changing their mind.

Just as personal attacks should be avoided, so too should exaggerated caricatures of opposing points. Take a hot-button issue like abortion, for example. In modern debates on abortion both in the media and in our daily lives, the starting positions of the debate are often mired in hyperbole. Accusations of wanting to kill babies or erect a “Handmaid’s Tale”-esque dystopia are fired from the hip. This instantly raises the volatility of the debate to incendiary levels and prevents respectful discussion. If both positions can agree that infanticide or an Orwellian regime are off the table, there is a much greater chance that sane discussion can prevail. Even if neither side budges from their initial position, it will be apparent that both sides are interested in serious discussion.

It is also important to agree ahead of time on the nature of the discussion. By this I mean that all participants must agree whether the goal is to create a policy proposal, learn more about other viewpoints or formally debate a point. Each of these cases invokes different rules and conventions. Policy proposals will require compromise; learning about other views is inherently non-confrontational. Open debate needs structure and pacing to be productive and requires outside moderation and fact-checking.

If one side approaches a discussion as a political process, but the other as a winner-take-all verbal brawl, nothing productive will emerge. We saw this in the scarring hearings during the confirmation process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, where the Republicans’ and Democrats’ different goals caused tempers to flare. Agreeing ahead of time to maintain a certain style can foster civilized engagement on a level playing field.

Perhaps your opponent does not seem ready to take the first steps toward fostering healthier discussion; why then should you let your guard down and accept a position of reconciliation when they seem ready to go for the throat? Maybe they aren’t going to join you in mutual tolerance, but if no one takes that first step, if no one is going to take a leap of faith, our public dialogue is doomed. In the current atmosphere of suspicion and hostility, real cultural dialogue will not begin until spontaneous acts of generosity open the door.

In summary, I think this stall in our civic dialogue could be resolved if we choose to “love thy enemy,” even if your enemy holds a disturbing position. Discarding arguments based in hyperbole and refraining from personal attacks prevents eruptions of anger or flipped tables.

Agreeing to meet on an even playing field and engaging openly can keep discussion alive. Taking that first step to “love thy enemy” is an extension of the famous golden rule and shows that important respect for the dignity of fellow citizens and humans.

Steve Kerby is a fourth-year physics and astronomy major who is going to Penn State University to pursue a doctorate in astronomy in the fall. His favorite musician is David Bowie.