Editorial: Finding a path to healthy conflict

Spencer Cox, the new chairman of the National Governors Association, is promoting the idea of “healthy conflict.” The Utah governor has become concerned about the growing problem of toxic arguments in society. As the Washington Post reports, Cox wants people to learn how to “disagree better.”

We should all try to think of ways we can join him in his quest because this is not just a political issue; it is a problem that permeates our society. Almost any disagreement these days escalates into an angry confrontation. We are better than that. Our disagreements are genuine, but the way we disagree can change.

We have to start somewhere. I recommend that we begin by banishing all ad hominem arguments. What are these? Ad hominem is a Latin phrase that means “to the person.” I’m sure you have seen this kind of arguing. It is all around us. What it describes is an argument where instead of actually addressing what someone has said, we insult the person. We call that person’s character into question. It is classified as one of the most basic logical fallacies.

Consider these examples. First, a liberal defends the use of a book in schools. Rather than offer a critique of the book, the person disagreeing with them says, “Only a pedophile would defend a book like that.” This is an ad hominem attack.

You can see where this goes. The liberal is offended and feels that they have to answer the charge of pedophilia. The real issue of the book is left behind as tempers flare. What started as a legitimate disagreement about what is appropriate in the schools has become a back-and-forth personal brawl.

Alternatively, a conservative attacks the use of a book in schools, and the person disagreeing says, “Only a fascist would attack a book like that.” An ad hominem insult from the opposite direction. Again, a personal attack. The question of the book is left in the dust as the person responds, “I am not a fascist.”

And so it goes.

Or reflect on the way in which too many people respond to judicial decisions. Liberals often complain about decisions on gun control by condemning the judges who made the decision. “What can you expect from a right-wing judge?” Or, “This judge has been secretly bought by right-wing billionaires.”

On the other hand, we see the same ad hominem attacks come from conservatives. “This judge made a liberal decision on gun control because he’s an Obama appointee.” Or, “This judge has been secretly bought by left-wing billionaires.”

When ad hominem attacks take place, everyone loses. We forget the real issues, which are worth exploring. Because the issues are made intensely personal when these attacks happen, they promote anger, not understanding. They increase suspicions and divisions between people. Most important, we fail to learn from one another, to expand our appreciation of the nuances present in complex issues. Our disagreements today are serious enough without adding personal attacks to the equation.

How can we avoid ad hominem arguments? When we hear things with which we disagree, instead of descending into the personal, we need to explore the problem. If there is a dispute about whether a book should be taught in schools, then ask: What does the book actually say? That would involve reading the book. And once you learn what it says, explore why that is either good or bad for young people. If you find the book disturbing, explain why. If you think the book is good, explain why. The same would be true for judicial decisions. Do you actually know what the judge in the case said? Have you actually read the decision? And if you have, why is that either good or bad?

We need to learn how to explore the why rather than the who.

Joining Governor Cox’s campaign for healthy disagreement is not naive. He is not asking everyone to join hands and sing Kumbaya. Our country is deeply divided, and he is not suggesting that we all agree with one another. But instead of resorting to personal attacks, we can all benefit by focusing on the argument itself.

The only problem with this is that we might open ourselves up to the possibility that we are all wrong sometimes. We all have to learn from those with whom we disagree. But do we have the strength to risk being wrong? That is the question.

Solomon D. Stevens is the author of “Religion, Politics, and the Law” (co-authored with Peter Schotten) and “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.” He wrote this for InsideSources.com.