• Joseph Ellis

What happened to public discourse?


I agree with some legislators more than I do others. I disagree with some legislators more than I do others. However, as I have spent time at the Capitol trying to build relationships with our legislators, I have learned one very important thing: every man and woman serving our state as a representative in the house or as a senator is an Oklahoman trying to do what they believe is best for the state and for their constituents. That fact is all that ought to be required to engage in constructive debate. Over the last week or two, I have witnessed such negativity and attacks against legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, that I have come to respect whether or not I agree on any particular issue. I have seen people assuming their motives when I know those assumptions to be false. I have seen their characters being publicly maligned. The topic of the current debate is both important and emotionally charged, so while the vitriol I’ve seen is disappointing, it is not necessarily surprising. The details of the issue at hand are not within our organization’s mission or vision, and therefore we take no official stance. It is not an issue that directly involves home education.

As a home educating father, however, it is an opportunity. I have an opportunity to teach my children about the topic of public discourse. It seems like we are losing the knowledge of how to disagree and yet still exercise good and polite citizenship. As home educators, we can do our part to try to reverse this trend. Disagreements can be both felt and expressed without abandoning mutual respect. This is critical as America becomes more and more diverse. We are a very diverse nation, with both diversity of culture and diversity of ideas. We need to teach our children how to engage and process disagreements without devolving into the level of animosity and rudeness that is so prevalent today in public life. And, of course, one of the best ways to teach our children is by modeling good behavior ourselves. So, here are five pointers for public discourse.

  1. Never Assume the Motivations of the Other If we could just follow this suggestion, it would cut down on so much negativity. Instead of assuming some ill intent as the reason for disagreement, try to understand why the other person has the opinion they do.

  2. Acknowledge Complexity in a Situation It may look so easy and obvious to me when focused on a single issue. But often, the other person is trying to balance multiple ideas or interests, and when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we might realize the situation is more complex than what we initially realized.

  3. Be Sympathetic of the Imperfection of People Let’s face it. Nobody’s perfect (Spoiler alert: Not even me.) Let’s be gracious and understand that we are disagreeing with someone who is not perfect, while at the same time realizing that we are not perfect either. We must allow some grace to be given to account for the fact that people do make mistakes.

  4. Look for the Good in Others This is related to the first tip, but it deserves its own pointer. Actively look for the good in other people, even those who disagree with you. Most of the time, they are like us in that they are just trying to do the right thing (even if we disagree on what that right thing is).

  5. The Golden Rule In the Christian Bible, Matthew 7:12 quotes Jesus as saying, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” This idea is affirmed nearly unanimously in cultures regardless of faith. How do we want to be treated? Do we prefer to have words put in our mouths by angry people we’ve never met? Do we want our characters attacked by people who don’t know us? What If we took these words of Jesus to heart and treated even those we disagree with as we would hope to be treated ourselves?

So, the debate rages on. And as we enter our home school “classroom” on Monday, we have an opportunity to offer a timely lesson about public discourse. Maybe we as home educators can make yet another positive impact on public life by helping to improve the level of discourse. This may not be our fight, but it is a chance to teach and train our children up in the way that they should go. So come on, home educators – We can do this!


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