In a letter sent to university students, faculty and administration on Nov. 10, Loyola President Dr. Jo Ann Rooney reminded all of us that we have “the opportunity, once again, to model civil discourse and respectful dialogue.” Sadly, however, the past few months have not given us many good models of communication to emulate.
Perhaps it would be helpful to examine what we mean by civil discourse. For me, such discourse focuses upon a person’s ideas, speech, actions, deeds and policies. More importantly, it does not focus directly on people themselves. One can disagree with another’s viewpoint without suggesting anything at all about the person holding those views.
If someone argues for a position with which you disagree, by all means, counter that person’s arguments with your own, but do so without assuming you understand the motivations or intentions behind the viewpoint.
If a person says or does something you believe to be harmful, then do everything you can to highlight the hurtful nature of that action or speech, but do so without being equally harmful yourself. Even if someone engages in hateful speech, focus your response as much as possible on forcefully condemning the words themselves.
None of this can be done without first listening. One cannot engage in a respectful dialogue without listening to the other with integrity. Make sure you truly understand what the other person is trying to say and the context in which they say it. Then, when you respond, you can focus on the words, not the person saying them.
St. Ignatius offers wonderful guidance for such productive communication, as Dr. Rooney explained in her speech at the faculty convocation, an annual event that celebrates the beginning of the school year and welcomes new faculty members to Loyola.
Annotation 22 of “The Spiritual Exercises” written by St. Ignatius explains how every person should handle others’ opinions: “We ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if we cannot interpret it favorably one should ask the other how the other means it.”
It is worth remembering that St. Ignatius offered this guidance in a time of terrible war and strife.
To engage in civil discourse, we must assume the best of others, especially those with whom we disagree. This is what we mean when we say, “Keep an open mind.”
Discourse is most effective when it is not judgmental. When you do make judgments, strive to make them about words, ideas, deeds and policies; not about people.