In a free society disagreement is inevitable. It is impossible to have a pluralistic society, made up of many diverse groups of people who hold different values, traditions and beliefs about the afterlife (if any at all), and to not encounter passionate, heated argument. The diversity of an open society actually invites this, and it is because of the capacity for dissent that we can be assured that our society remains free.
Yet, in our present age, the methods of disagreement have also begun to stifle the means of free and open discourse, to such an extent that speech becomes limited in its range, thus limiting the liberty of the individual to express themself. This shift has happened, in my view, because of a lack of understanding of the virtue of speech and debate, and a woeful ignorance of what is uniquely individual, and what is simply a concept, external to the individual, which has been selectively embraced by that individual.
In short, I believe William Paul Young stated it best when he intimated his past experience to an audience, while explaining the concept of his book "The Shack":
"I had lost the ability to discern between an honest critique and a value statement."
The problem of open discourse in our public square is simply this: individuals take an external belief, or habit of conduct and they bond those actions or beliefs to the core of who they are. This becomes toxic when this particular practice or belief is challenged. Instead of a critique of the practice or belief, the individual simply hears an assault on their entire being, causing them either to wilt and complain about damaged feelings, or to flare up in an aggressive counter attack which is geared at wounding equally, if not more so, the initial critic.
The inability to separate your adopted values or practices from the very essence of your basic humanity is stifling to the ability to dialogue. How can anyone discuss a prevalent issue, and it's moral implications for society and the individual if they cannot even breach the subject for fear of damaged feelings, or hostile counter attack?
Both sides politically, and many sides religiously are guilty of this, and it is the reason our civic progress has been effectively handed over to the party in power at any given time. Our liberty forfeited, and the minority subjected to the whims of the majority as Tocqueville observed and cautioned against.
A few examples:
A woman supports the practice of abortion cannot discuss the issue of abortion, a pressing societal issue with much yet to be debated as far as ethics and morality of the practice are concerned. She perceives that the critique of the practice of abortion is a critique of her intrinsic value as a human being, and instead of engaging in vigorous debate to defend, using logic and reason, her views as to why it is an acceptable practice, she responds calling those who question it sexist, mysoginistic, and infers they hate women. This effectively shuts down the discourse, but the issue remains unaddressed, and factional chasms begin to further widen.
A religious individual is questioned about the validity of the tax exempt nature of their churches. Mega churches in particular are brought up in the critique and the fact that some use the tax exempt nature of religion to game the system and parishioners and to embezzle money, as well as others that abuse their status in the interest of pushing political agendas from the pulpit. The church goer doesn't hear any of this honest critique and instead of engaging in a spirited defense of the need for religious liberty, and the ethics of government encouraging such practices, immediately asserts that the one giving critique is attacking his first amendment freedom, and threatens resistance to the tyrannical government in the face of this persecution.
Thirdly, an individual is challenged on the question of gay marriage, and the political implications of the Supreme Court precedent set in the striking down of marriage bans. The individual critiquing also challenges the morality of the practice, questioning if it is indeed natural. The individual being challenged takes this as an assault on their right to associate and love their partner, she also hears the individual calling her an abomination and raining hellfire down on her, rather than simply asking if same-sex attraction is a natural expression of human intimacy. Her response is to call the questioner a religious, hateful bigot and then blocks him on social media. Meanwhile, she posts her own take on the situation to her like-minded friends so they can perpetuate the myth created from the original interaction.
How can we, as a society, hope to address the great cultural divisions, if we won't even entertain conversations that might challenge us, or make us uncomfortable?
The answer is that we can't.
It is a sign of intellectual weakness when one cannot be challenged on their beliefs or the practices they incorporate into their daily lives. Our society is constructed to protect individuals and their property from harm, but our government is not instituted for the purpose of protecting hurt feelings. A vibrant constitutional republic is built on the ability to share and dispute ideas, even unpopular ones, and so should it ever be.
Now, since ad hominem attacks seem to be the natural response in public discourse, how does one go about engaging the culture at large in earnest, passionate debate, without being maligned or misrepresented?
Here are some ways I have found helpful in keeping the discussion civil:
1) Detach as much emotion as possible from the argument.
Emotion doesn't make sound arguments. It is easily manipulated, and assumes much about the person you're engaging. Passion is necessary to address moral or ethical quandaries, however, it musn't be unbridled in its application. It takes an individual of self-control to make an effective argument.
2) Stick to the subject matter, and try to address the root dilemma when debating.
So many debates end up in tangent city, and so many good conversations are ruined by extraordinary case studies that, in no way represent the entirety of the issue at hand. When engaging an individual who wants to drive off into left field, refocus on the issue at hand and offer to address the additional issues briught into the argument once the core question has been satisfactorily addressed. You would be amazed at how many discourses end civilly by not allowing distraction from the true issue. You may still disagree, but at least you know that you have satisfactorily addressed the issue you came to talk about.
3) Treat the person as a human being , not an evil troll.
It's amazing what a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t can do for an argument. Remember that your dilemma is with their ideology, and that this individual came to their belief through some sort of chain of reasoning, much the way you came to hold your very own beliefs. It's basically the golden rule here, people. If the opposition starts asserting that you have made certain personal statements about them that are untrue (you of course haven't because you're staying on subject and addressing the actual issue, not letting your emotions draw you into petty name calling), then ask them to point out where you made said assertions and offer to apologize in earnest if you have done so. You won't have to because you didn't. You're just making them think or re-read what you actually said or typed.
4) Actually know something about the subject before you shoot your mouth off.
You don't have to be an expert, but this should really go without saying.
5) Ask them a lot of questions.
Don't simply try to jackhammer them with your dazzling array of facts and knowledge. Odds are they don't care. Mostly allow them to expose either their lack of knowledge on the subject, or allow them the opportunity to share their story a bit. This not only gives them a human element to you, which can lead to more pleasant dialogue, but it also allows you to see their reasoning and cajole them into thinking about the flawed bits. Remember, you'll never convince them you're right because you say so, but if you guide them along, letting them share their personal story, it allows you to penetrate their natural defenses, and gives you license to challenge them on the logical inaccuracies if you find them.
6) Grow thick skin.
Even if they get personal, you should already be approaching this with the mentality that they will use guilt, or name calling to try to shut you up. If you go in prepared for insults, they will bounce off, allowing you to stick to your case, and to come across the bigger, much more well informed person in the debate. It also helps you as a person to learn to be the better person in life in general. Sticks and stones....ya know.
Anyway, that's it. Those are my suggestions for engaging and changing the nature of conversation in our society.