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Don’t shy away from talking about sensitive topics

By Calum Robertson, November 21 2018 —

My grandfather often told me that I should avoid discussing religion and politics in conversation, so as to remain respectful and polite. This sentiment still seems to persist today, as the art of discussion and debate on controversial issues and beliefs outside of the classroom seems to be on its deathbed.

The killer? A fear of being disrespectful, offensive or impolite by simply bringing up such topics. But there is still a way to have much-needed polite, meaningful discourse in today’s world.

Evening news broadcasts and social media feeds are full of controversial stories that divide the public. Our society strives to promote acceptance and tolerance, but also free speech. That conversation has recently evolved into a tangled mess that boils down to ‘political correctness’ versus ‘individual expression.’ The rhetoric that incites hate-fueled acts is defended under the guise of free speech. This tempestuous reality has heightened discomfort with discussing hot topics.

Political rhetoric has also changed its tune, shifting to less-than-civil discourse, ruthless attacks on character and tactics more akin to barroom brawls than policy debate. In this turbulent atmosphere, what’s the best approach?

You may choose to shy away from controversial discussions, leaving that for scholars. This is usually done in the hopes of avoiding potentially hostile disagreements.

While the intent is wholesome, avoiding conversation on tough topics altogether is unhealthy and spreads ignorance. Opinions based on misconceptions can become dominant as this fear of discussion prevents understanding and clarity.

We should discuss tough issues and dissenting views to better understand not only each others’ views, but also our own positions. We should seek to see why someone might not agree with us and weigh the evidence for ourselves.

Honest conversation encourages individuals to reflect on their views seriously. This can be done in a polite manner. Every person is different, as is every conversation, so there is no set rulebook for polite discourse. That said, a few rough guidelines can help avoid conversations becoming uncomfortable arguments.

If you disagree with someone’s point, be respectful. Don’t attack their character or their background. Address the argument itself, but instead of immediately tearing it apart, ask for clarity on why the person holds that view. Then, share your opposing view and why you hold it.

Yelling opposing views won’t change anyone’s mind. But a reasonable explanation might. At the very least, it will open your mind to other possibilities. As creatures of free will, we’re all entitled to our own beliefs. Because of this, we should encourage individuals to discuss and analyze those beliefs.

Our perspectives on issues develop as we discuss them. This development is crucial for an intellectual society. So do not shy away from discussions. Rather, look forward to it to expanding the lenses through which you may see the world. Establishing a norm of polite discourse will help stem the tide of irrational hate.

Still, show respect for others. Don’t sink to the level of a petty politician or kids bickering on the playground. Display common courtesy, but don’t be afraid to share your outlook and to listen and learn from others.

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