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Campaigns, Civility and Conversation

Posted by Margie Ruttenberg on February 3, 2020

First, a confession: I am a news junkie, a Twitter addict and a political wonk. It comes from my years of working in TV news in Washington, DC. It used to be part of my job. Now it’s just part of me.

I left DC and moved home to Pittsburgh for many reasons. One being how difficult it was to have a civil discussion in what was becoming a more toxic political environment. Simple conversations over cocktails or dinner often turned into arguments. Social media threads were worse. I saw friendships and relationships suffer, and some end.

As we head into the first caucuses and primaries of the 2020 campaign cycle, political and policy differences will become even more prominent. We’ll hear it from candidates, from surrogates and from talking heads on cable news. I wonder how challenging it will be to have civil discourse in our community. In any community.

Civil discourse is defined as “An engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding.” Is it possible to have civil discourse when so many of us have baked in opinions, made stronger by media echo chambers? The answer is yes, but it’s not easy.

A series on NPR last summer really stuck with me and I think it could help all of us navigate what will undoubtedly be a challenging political season.

One tip from NPR is about starting a conversation. Carefully choose the moment to talk. You can’t force someone into a contentious conversation. Instead of of demanding a discussion, extend an invitation.

Another tip: Avoid making snap judgments or writing people off based on their background or your own assumptions. Assume people have good intentions.

Ask questions and don’t attack someone’s personal beliefs. One expert told NPR that we have strong emotional attachments to our beliefs and we are wired to defend them. Monitor your own emotional responses and watch others. Disengage to avoid a full blown fight.

And listen. Really listen.

Remember, we are living in historic times. May your candidate win. And if he or she doesn’t, may you have thoughtful conversations along the way. You may be surprised at what you’ll learn.

Margie Ruttenberg, who recently was named JCC Volunteer of the Year, works with the JCC Center for Loving Kindness.

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