With toxic polarization infecting the national discourse, the new year presents a timely opportunity to improve the quality of our conversations, especially when communicating with people with whom we disagree. We can do this by reflecting more on the following four “G” words: gratitude, good faith, generosity, and God.
Many people associate gratitude with religious ritual. The Jewish tradition, for example, requires daily expressions of gratitude such as reciting each morning modei ani (Hebrew for “I am grateful”). Specific blessings of thanks also are said both before and after meals and snacks. In addition, traditional Jews say a foundational prayer three times a day known as the Amidah, which contains the same prayer of thanksgiving.
But gratitude extends beyond religious practice. It also manifests in mindfulness, an attribute with universal appeal today. Mindfulness enhances self-awareness, which causes us to pay more attention to how we engage with others. This leads to more effective, positive communication.
Acting in mutual good faith is the second “G” that can elevate the quality of our discourse. I once disagreed with a colleague about a work-related matter. But it meant a great deal to me when he remarked that despite our difference of opinion, he always knew I was coming from a place of good faith. This observation taught me the valuable lesson that conflict resolution is much easier if we acknowledge that those with different viewpoints can still be acting in good faith.
In contrast, our present social climate encourages people to assume bad faith on the part of those with whom we disagree. We are accustomed to demonizing individuals with different perspectives, a tendency exacerbated by the news, social media and the overwhelming pull of our “soundbite” culture. Too often we rush to judgment rather than engaging in thoughtful discussion of difficult issues that are rarely one-sided. Discourse would be markedly improved if more people made an affirmative effort to act in good faith and to assume good faith on the part of people whose viewpoints differ from our own.
Generosity is the third “G” word that can foster a healthier discourse. In this context, I am referring especially to emotional generosity. Recently, the University of Austin was established with the goal of resisting the political and ideological asymmetry characteristic of so many institutions of higher learning. In calling for a culture of trust, openness and grace within the Academy, founding president Pano Kanelos emphasized the importance of emotional generosity.
As an academic, I see a real need for the type of educational reset Kanelos envisions. An environment that encourages people to display emotional generosity will encourage open discourse. True dialogue can only occur when people understand that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process and have confidence that they will be forgiven.
Finally, conversations about God can enhance our ability to engage with others. I realize that God is a freighted concept for many people. But meaningful conversations about distinct conceptions of a higher power can create close bonds and deep friendships. I learned this as a religion major in college through the many conversations I had with my Christian classmates.
God-talk also facilitates positive communication aside from religion. Although religious people often think about God in Biblical terms, many others maintain a more fluid, but no less personally meaningful, perspective. Most views of God have the potential to reaffirm that as individuals, we are not the center of the world. This spiritually driven focus on “the other” can furnish a path toward human engagement rather than estrangement.
We can control our words and our actions. By elevating how we relate to others, by decreasing polarized discourse, we can help repair the world.
We live in challenging times. The global pandemic continues to be a reminder of how little control we often have over our environment. But thank God we can control our words and our actions. By elevating how we relate to others, by decreasing polarized discourse, we can help repair the world.
Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law and the author of “Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World” (updated edition forthcoming).