clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Negative campaigning is in overdrive. Here’s how to disagree better, not less

America is actually at its best when it is a country of big ideas, competing visions and rigorous debate

Matt Slocum, Associated Press

In the final days of a contemptuous 2020 election cycle, the negative campaigning is hitting overdrive, verbal assaults are on the rise and the politics of personal destruction are hitting their peak. Many citizens and would-be voters are exhausted and exasperated by it all. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I have long subscribed to the idea that America is actually at its best when it is a country of big ideas, competing visions and rigorous debate. It is important to remember that the goal of public discourse and political debate has never been to disagree less. The goal is to disagree better.

Many Americans have completely disconnected from the public square and disengaged from political discussions because it has become too frustrating, too volatile, too futile and too stressful. There are proven principles and patterns that lead to disagreeing better and bringing about fruitful conversations on critical, and even contentious, issues.

[Sign up to get Boyd Matheson’s “Therefore, what?” email newsletter — in your inbox weekly.]

Two of the Founding Fathers, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, spent significant time expounding on principles for disagreeing better. Washington’s “Rules of Civility” and Franklin’s “13 Virtues” are both time-tested and incredibly timely. Their insight and experience provide a ready-reference for all of us.

These historic, and of course humanly flawed, sages from America’s early chapters chronicled principles they strived to live. Written two centuries ago, their wisdom and counsel may be more applicable today than when first written. Such patterns to ensure we can disagree better should be mandatory reading and should be rigorously applied today, especially in the midst of a divisive politic climate, racial unrest, a global pandemic and economic upheaval.

From President Washington:

  • Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
  • Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ’tis a sign of a tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern.
  • Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.
  • Think before you speak.
  • Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.
  • In disputes, be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion…
  • Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
  • Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, and presently or at some other time;
  • Mock not nor jest at anything of importance.

From Mr. Franklin:

  • Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  • Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation. Avoid extremes;
  • Chastity. Fidelity.
  • Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

I would add a few of my own observations about keys that could transform any discussion into an opportunity to disagree better.

Restraint always works

Just because we can say or do something doesn’t mean we should. The ultimate display of power is in choosing not to use it.

Reacting to the emotional outbursts of others with an equal amount of anger is the opposite of restraint. It typically leads to a reckless game of verbal chicken, usually ending in damaged relationships, reduced opportunity for dialogue and little chance of compromise or productive outcomes.

I regularly share with political leaders, candidates and their staff members the old saying, “Speak in anger and you will deliver the best speech you will ever live to regret.” The same applies to businesses, work, neighbors and family members. Restraint always works.

If you must speak, ask a question

There really can be a greater quality to all of our conversations and relationships if we understand the difference between exclamation points and question marks. Instead of trying to make points, we might want to try asking a question instead. I am convinced you can do far more with a question than you can ever do with a statement.

Wedges cannot be driven into bridges

The nature of a wedge is to continually, sometimes imperceptibly, drive deeper, actually causing the divide to widen. Bridges to span our disagreements cannot be secure or stable if the divide is forever expanding. The only remedy to a divisive wedge is to remove it.

Avoid instant certainty

For me one of the most troubling of the “instant” trends in our society and civil discourse is instant certainty. Instant certainty is the enemy of truth and a barrier to trust.

Embracing uncertainty requires real humility and courageous vulnerability. Being able to say, “I don’t know,” or “tell me more” or even, “I hadn’t considered that” builds trust, leads to a more complete view of the truth and empowers us to disagree better.

“Let’s talk!” The beginning of better disagreements

The solution to any problem begins when someone says, “Let’s talk.” Many of the greatest moments in our nation’s history began not in the marbled halls of a government building, but in conversations around a kitchen table.

We find ourselves in the midst of a barrage of bombastic and caustic rhetoric punctuated by personal putdowns, political zingers and angry voices. This is no way to have a conversation and certainly is no way to solve the challenges we face as a country. So, let’s talk about talking about it differently and agree that we truly can disagree better.

Living up to the principles they professed was a challenge for Washington and Franklin in the early days of the republic, and it remains a worthy challenge for each of us today.

You may disagree with me and I may disagree with you on a wide range of issues. I believe that we can at least agree that we can commit to disagreeing better.