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NORMAL — Divisive discussions that polarize people are not good for democracy — or for the family dinner table, say two professors who have studied the issue.

All families have their differences, notes Joseph Zompetti, professor of communication at Illinois State University and author of "Divisive Discourse."

“You might have that one uncle or that one grandma you really don't want to talk to,” he said. “Use the same techniques with your family that you would use with that person from Starbucks.”

Those techniques include listening and remembering "you're talking to a human being, not the enemy," he said.

Meghan Burke, associate professor of sociology at Illinois Wesleyan University, laughs when recalling that her family described her college years as “the dark days,” when they had to remind her they didn't want to talk about genocide during dinner.

She has no recollection of that, but says her family is probably right when they remember a Christmas where children were opening presents and she was trying to talk about the sweatshops where the toys were made.

“Going into Thanksgiving dinner with a political argument is not healthy for anybody,” said Burke.

She tells her students, “You learn with trial and error,” how — and when — to discuss difficult topics.

But she also tells them, “Stay true to yourselves. You don't want to lose who you are.”

Zompetti said you can create some separation by saying you read something somewhere or a “friend” said something — even though that “friend” is you.

“You disarm your family member,” he said.

Civility, not silence, is the answer, said both professors.

“We should be willing to be brave and share what you know,” said Burke. “Stand up for those who might not have a voice at the table.”

But, she added, do it without attacking: “Challenge the idea, not the person.”

An old rule of etiquette says, “Never discuss politics or religion.”

But Zompetti said, “We live in a democracy. It should be the other way around.”

Not discussing important topics is dangerous, added Burke.

“That is going to limit our ability to critically analyze and solve problems,” she said. “Such issues are rarely as neat and clean as one side having the answers and the other being delusional.”

The professors have some suggestions for promoting meaningful conversations without conflict.

The first, both agreed, is to listen — as difficult as that may be sometimes.

“Even if you disagree, you should at least listen to the other side,” said Zompetti. But, too often, “we're already thinking about what we're going to say next and not listening.”

Second, he said, “Try to enter into these conversations with the mindset that it's not a competition.”

It's not about “winning,” agreed Burke.

Third, “be open to learning more,” said Burke, even if you are “certain” you don't have common ground.

"We have become more siloed and tend to gain information from and communicate with those who already agree with us," she said.

In researching her book, “Race, Gender and Class in the Tea Party,” Burke found that many of the concerns of Tea Party members were the same as those who might think there is no common ground: being able to retire and their children being able to afford college and find good-paying jobs.

Zompetti's book highlights fallacies that political pundits and politicians use and “what we can do to improve our conversation,” he said. The book has separate chapters on such hot-button issues as gun control, immigration, LGBT rights, race and religion.

“I want people to understand that they shouldn't be afraid to talk about politics,” said Zompetti. “Only through conversation can we remotely find common ground.”

Because of the nastiness in today's political discussions, a lot of people have “checked out” of politics, said Zompetti, and “that is seriously problematic for a democratic government.”

The problem of divisive discourse is “certainly not limited to the United States,” added Burke. “The drift toward extremes is alarming no matter what the nation.”

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota


Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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