Necessary discourse in the age of discord

The statue of Zebulon Vance on the State Capitol grounds gets a dusting of snow during a winter storm in January.

by Christopher Edmonston

photograph by Robert Willett

Here in Raleigh, the statue of Zebulon Vance on the old State Capitol grounds sounds a timely admonition from the 19th century: “The subjection of every passion and prejudice to the cooler sway of judgment and reason, when the common welfare is concerned, is the first victory to be won.”

I read these words and sigh.

Prejudice and passion run amok in our nation at the expense of cooler judgment and important and necessary compromise. In 2017, dissent has been labeled as betrayal. Families allow political arguments to rip their seams apart. Elected leaders have become so entrenched in arguments that the democratic process is locked down. Like a gear which will no longer turn, we have forgotten that there is a gulf of difference between argument and debate. We have lost touch with the high art of discourse.

Writing back in 1998, the linguist Deborah Tannen predicted that ours was becoming an argument culture. She was right. So right that many years from now historians will look upon our age and call it the age of discord.

Discord and discourse may sound alike, but they are polar opposites. One divides. The other unites. One shatters alliances and friendships. The other builds allies and forges relationships. Discourse and dialog are among the building blocks of civil society, the rule of law, and democracy itself.

As our culture divides itself into ever growing and intensifying tribes (left, right, progressive, conservative), the first casualty is discourse. Argument, snark, and lashing out are the vox populi of the 21st century. We see the anger and the vitriol on our social media feeds and on our news programs.

Our situation is detrimental to peaceable living and a death sentence to debate. All of us, from our most powerful leaders to the inspired young adults taking to the streets to express their protest, must take a pause from the accelerating decline of discourse in which we raise our fists and voices to make sure that “our” rightness is confirmed through proving “their” wrongness.

When proving the wrongness of others – through shouting, shaming, and insults – becomes the object of our energies, the best we can do is make enemies of the very people with whom we must work to find solutions for society’s most vexing challenges. We all share the destinies of our communities together. We must live with those with whom we debated long after the critical decisions have been made and policies have been enacted.

If our sole approach towards those with whom we disagree is zero-sum, with a winner-take-all and scorched-earth strategy, all we are left with once the votes have been counted is ash and soot.

Last year, Gov. Jim Martin warned North Carolina of as much in the wake of the painful, confusing, and costly fight over HB2. He said that the grand mess of the state of our politics was the direct result of our failure to listen to each other.


Listening to others is a requirement of all forms of dialog. Let us ask ourselves about the last time we had a meaningful conversation with someone different than us? By meaningful, I mean to ask whether or not we are as willing to listen as we are anxious to express our own values and points of view? A failure to easily remember a time of authentic discourse is indicative of the health of our communities. By any measure, we are unhealthy and left wondering just how much more illness the unhealthy patient can take.

We erroneously see dialog and compromise as signs of weakness. All the while the wisdom of the ages, from the ancient philosophers to the great faith traditions of the world, teach us an opposing lesson. They teach us that we are stronger when we listen in consideration of other valid perspectives.

In 2017, we ignore the ancients at our own peril. It is time we remember that a commitment to authentic dialog and transforming discourse does not mean that we abandon the urgency of our convictions. The great debates of our time are great debates because the stakes are very high. Real people and real lives hang in the balance. So the urgency that we feel, no matter our particular tribes or leanings, is well founded.

Dialog and discourse require that we bring our personal convictions to our conversations. We must bring our values to our debates. But dialog and discourse also require we make space in those same conversations to honestly consider the convictions of others. Such is the making of the way out from the dead-end of intractable argument. Call it a GPS re-routing in order to save our age.

Rethinking how we regard our opponents is no longer optional. It is required. We will remain lost without doing so. For history will not only judge us by the particulars of our convictions, but she will also judge us by how we conducted ourselves while debating those same convictions.

Those of us committed to discourse over discord will be accused of being “Pollyanna.” We will be told the arguments are too entrenched. We will be scolded that we don’t understand the issues at stake. We will be told that considering multiple points of view across the divides is a betrayal to our particular tribes. We will be reminded that we are expected to dance with the ones that brought us along.

If we surrender to such reasoning we will become the puppets of fear: the fear that we might lose; or “they” might win; or that we will be forced to compromise our precious ideals. Throughout human history, our worst moments have occurred because of the surrender to fear. We make our worst decisions when we are afraid.

Instead of fear, what if we offered an honest commitment to listening as much as speaking? What if we dedicated ourselves to reading, listening, and watching media beyond the single point of view thought-silos where we usually read, listen, and watch? What if we energized our moral and emotional cores to resist knee-jerk rushes to judgment? What if we strived for patience with our most ardent opponents? Such actions are an acts of resistance to discord. They are acts of resistance which do not require an abandonment of our core convictions and sacred hopes.

In order to participate in solutions, we must be at the table with all who are effected by the solutions we crave. To borrow a line from Hamilton, we have to be in the room where it happens. Harsh, shout-filled, argumentative speech rarely, if ever, opens any doors. In order to express our most ardent hopes, we must first get through the door.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the mark of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind and retain the ability to function. Our dialog is broken and dysfunctional. Discord between the opposing ideas has won the day. As history unfolds, why not unjam the deadlock through some overdue listening and necessary discourse?