Everyone wants to talk about the latest political intrigues and maneuvers. Trump Tweets. Fake
news. The Russians. I dip in and out of the social media fray, but I keep my distance from
political discourse. It is not because I have nothing to say that I stay away. On the contrary, I
have perhaps too much to say.
In high school I was that kid who belonged to no particular clique, but could cross between
cliques with ease, not being a member, not belonging to anyone, but friendly with everyone. My
loyalties are similar today. I’ve got strong commitments and convictions, but I hold them close to
my chest, not because I fear being exposed in a hostile environment, although there may be
some of that, but because I know how the discussion will go.
I have been a student and a professor in the secular academy for over 20 years. I have far left
acquaintances and right acquaintances, non-religious and religious acquaintances. I have
working class and elite acquaintances. I know how the discussion will go in almost every
context. I have been down that road, the one that dead ends in frustration and emotional strain,
and I would prefer not to visit again.
Why is it that we cannot discuss politics without ending up in the cul-de-sac of civil discourse?
Round and round, with no progress? Why is it that we get stuck, but we continue to hope, to
long, to try to make progress with our fellow citizens?
I have figured out through personal frustration that we need more wisdom in how we discuss
with one another, not just politics, but every topic on which we can expect disagreement. What I
have learned is that it is not wise to discuss contentious matters where there is not common
ground with those with whom we disagree. It’s not that I don’t discuss politics, period. I don’t
discuss politics where I have not secured common ground.
What do I mean by common ground? Ideally, here is what I would like to see in place prior to
embarking in discussion of a contentious issue such as politics, religion, or sex:
1) Both my discussion partner and I are committed to the use of reason (what this looks like
will require a post of its own).
2) Both my discussion partner and I are willing to live by what we claim. That is to say, our
words are not merely words, but that we are committed to our convictions. This is
3) Both my discussion partner and I are committed to the notion that some things are
clearly knowable to all human beings by means of reason because we are rational
beings. This protects us from falling into the pit of skepticism or the pit of fideism, which
are both conversation stoppers.
4) Both my discussion partner and I realize that some topics are logically prior to others. In
this context, political commitments are downstream from religious and philosophical
commitments, which will need to be addressed first.
5) Both my discussion partner and I realize that discussion takes time and that
disagreements will not be resolved quickly.
6) Both my discussion partner and I remember that the other person is a complex human
being and ought to be treated with dignity despite our differences.
7) Both my discussion partner and I–and all of us–realize that without this kind of
discussion, progress in civil discourse will not be made. Our divisions are deeper than
When this common ground is in place between my discussion partner and myself, perhaps we
can talk about politics, or religion, or even sex, but not before that. This is a personal policy and
a professional policy. I will not engage with students, colleagues, acquaintances, family, or
friends in contentious discussion without common ground. I’ve been down that road and it leads
Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton, Ph.D.