The Lost Art of Discourse


On the way into the office this morning, I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR. The host was trying to interview a member of Congress regarding the current state of several political issues, notably DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program). The bias was evident and expected, the congressman was a Republican and championing the GOP as being the better ‘party of the people’, touting the failures of the Democrats for not working with them and so on. Nothing out of the norm in the rhetoric itself.

What struck me in the interchange, however, was the manner of approaching the discussion, particularly on the part of the congressman. From the moment he was introduced, he was belligerent to the host, talking over her and ‘stumping’ for the party line. He refused to answer the questions asked and instead, did his best to blame the other party for the difficulties of getting legislation through. The content was not the issue, however, but the rude, boorish manner that he approached the interview. It was as if he felt the need to talk in order to keep the host from being able to say anything, a great tactic for debate but a terrible way to get your message across to someone who may be on the fence or in opposition to your position. While your supporters will cheer for your ‘victory’ in the conversation so to speak, those on the fence and in opposition will most likely see you as not interested in actually reaching someone with the message. Click here for the broadcast.

Discourse seems to be a lost art in this day and age, people preferring to post one-off social media messages that are inflammatory or what we refer to in religious circles as ‘knock-out’ verses or statements. The idea behind them is to state your case in such a way as to leave no room for conversation about the topic. Consider these two statements:

Subject A is the worst possible solution to the problem.

I believe subject A needs to be revisited/looked at a little more.

The first statement is intended to offer an opinion and leaves little or no room to question without taking an oppositional stance. It is essentially, an invitation to debate/argument with inflammatory language at its heart. The second statement offers a personal expression of belief about subject A but by expressing it terms of revisited or looked at you invite the person reading to offer an opinion without being divisive. Both politics and religion have become home to inflammatory, accusatory language that seeks to deliver the ‘knock-out’ rather than find reasonable solutions.

In Methodism, we have something we call holy or Christian conferencing. In point of fact, the theory is a sound one, though it is not often used in the most effective way. According to Kevin Watson,

“There is broad agreement among Wesleyan scholars who have studied Wesley’s own use of the phrase that by “Christian conference” Wesley was referring to the practice of cultivating growth in holiness in community through conversation about our experience of God. The primary places where early Methodists practiced “holy conferencing,” then, was in the class meeting and the band meeting.”[1]

I believe the heart of true discourse or conferencing if you will, lies in the recognition by those involved that we are part of a community (a fellowship between those who live in proximity to one another) and discourse (the process of understanding, reasoning, and thought) is the language that allows for the best solutions to the problem. The idea is growth, not an intellectual victory in debate or beating the other into emotional submission. Growth. The conversation I heard this morning on the radio had little if any room for growth, but a great deal of room for the people involved and those who chose to emotionally invest in the broadcast to be angry and embittered.

We can, however, chose to seek a better way of discourse, a way that recognizes that we all live in the same large community (the United States) made up of smaller expressions of the whole. We can recognize that difference exists and rather than fear it or seek to subdue it, engage it for the purpose of understanding.


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