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Originally published Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 5:48 PM

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5 tips for creating civil discourse in an era of polarization

Charles C. Camosy proposes five practices for moving beyond the polarization which currently dominates our public discourse

Special to The Times

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Congress is now more polarized than at any time since Civil War Reconstruction. As we barrel toward a nasty presidential election, things will get even worse.

Whether it is the news channels we watch, the blogs we read, the people we follow on Twitter, our physical neighbors, our Facebook friends, our churches, or the people with whom we socialize, most of us consume information in communities which do not invite us to critically examine our positions.

The polarization is particularly powerful during those increasingly rare times during which we are forced to engage ideas to which we are seldom exposed: say, at Thanksgiving dinner, or in a required course in college or while watching a presidential debate. When we do have our safe, comfortable views directly and thoughtfully challenged, we are often unable to come up with something other than a polarizing response.

Happily, there are signs that we can do things differently. A recent international conference on abortion that I planned at Princeton University called "Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words" brought several dozen academics, public figures and activists from all sides of the debate together for dialogue.

We talked honestly about our differences, but also explored areas where some of us might be able to come together: protecting the consciences of workers and institutions, the implications of a later-term fetus' sensitivity to pain, and giving women the resources to choose their pregnancies and provide for their children.

I also started an annual dialogue between a group of young theologians dedicated to getting beyond the liberal/conservative polarization in the Catholic Church, and have just released a book which details my conversation and personal relationship with perhaps Christianity's most infamous opponent: atheist philosopher Peter Singer.

On the basis of these experiences, I propose five practices for moving beyond the polarization which currently dominates our public discourse:

• Humility. We are finite, flawed beings and are prone to making serious mistakes. We need to enter into discussions and arguments with this at the very front of our minds — not only in being comfortable with someone challenging our point of view, but also reserving the right to change our mind when our argument is shown to be problematic.

• Solidarity with our conversation partner. This involves active listening, presuming that one has something to learn, and (if possible) getting to know them personally beyond an abstraction. Never reduce another's ideas because of their gender, race, level of privilege, sexual orientation, or social location. Similarly, never reduce them to what you suspect are their "secret personal motivations." Instead, give your partner the courtesy of carefully responding to the actual idea or argument that she is offering for your consideration.

• Avoiding binary thinking. The issues that are seriously debated in our public sphere are almost always too complex to fit into simplistic categories like liberal/conservative, religious/secular, open/close-minded, pro-life/pro-choice, etc. Furthermore, it sets up framework in which taking one side automatically defines one against "the other side" — thus further limiting serious and open engagement.

• Avoiding fence-building and dismissive words and phrases. It might feel good to score these rhetorical points, but doing so is one of the major contributors to our polarized discourse. Let us simply stop using words and phrases like: radical feminist, war on women, neocon, limousine liberal, prude, heretic, tree-hugger, anti-science, anti-life, and so on. Instead, use language that engages and draws the other into a fruitful engage of ideas.

• Leading with what you are for. Not only is this the best way to make a convincing case for the view you currently hold, but this practice often reveals that we are actually after very similar things and simply need to be able to talk in an open and coherent way about the best plan for getting there.

Charles C. Camosy is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University in New York City and author of "Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization." He can be reached at camosy@fordham.edu.

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