Government & Politics

Take a chill pill and engage your political foes with civility, professor says

Engage political foes with civility, says UMKC professor

Allan Katz, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and head of American Public Forum, spoke on the issues of political discourse and civil dialogue during an event hosted by the League of Women Voters on Saturday at Atonement Luther
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Allan Katz, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and head of American Public Forum, spoke on the issues of political discourse and civil dialogue during an event hosted by the League of Women Voters on Saturday at Atonement Luther

Have patience, people.

When talk shifts to politics at Sunday’s Super Bowl party — and in this Age of Trump you know it will — take a deep breath. Pause before replying to that pathetic moron in the corner who disagrees with you on almost everything except your shared loathing of the Patriots.

Have some civility. Because while that dope, who quite possibly is your blood relative, might be oh-so wrong about everything, as far as you are concerned, he or she most likely came to those views honestly and should not be an object of scorn, says Allan Katz, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor.

Katz is on a mission to counter the coarseness of our discourse through an organization he co-founded called American Public Square.

“Just because someone disagrees with you does not make them bad people,” Katz said in a speech at Saturday’s meeting of the League of Women Voters of Johnson County. “All we’re saying,” he said at another point, “is that people who disagree with you have a good reason for believing what they believe.”

Those beliefs might not be based on hard facts, clear-eyed reason or remotely match the viewpoints of that Fox or MSNBC talking head with whom you have appointment viewing. But, Katz said, the person with views you consider hogwash is likely to have formed those opinions based on their own history and experiences.

And if you take time to listen to them, and explain your own views calmly without poking your political adversary in the eye, Katz believes, you just might learn that you have more things in common than you realize.

“A little empathy goes a long way,” he said.

Katz remembers a time when we weren’t at each others’ throats so much.

After law school, the St. Louis-area native worked on legislative matters for former Democratic congressmen David Obey of Wisconsin and Bill Gunter of Florida. This was back in the 1970s, when compromise was still an acceptable way of doing business in Washington, he said.

He went onto hold top state government posts in Florida in the 2000s and, in 2009. President Obama appointed him ambassador to Portugal.

But it was as an elected city commissioner in Tallahassee, Katz said, that he learned the value of listening to and valuing the opinions of people with whom he didn’t necessarily agree. Sometimes they changed his mind. Most times they didn’t.

He learned that most people come to their opinions honestly. Their views may not seem logical. But yours probably aren’t entirely logical either. A lot of rationalization figures into forming our opinions, and those opinions are reinforced by the media we consume and the like-minded circle of friends we keep.

“We have come to confuse our own opinions with facts,” he said.

American Public Forum tries to clear the confusion at the regular panel discussions it hosts in the Kansas City area. They feature “unlikeminded people” discussing controversial issues, Katz said.

To keep those events from devolving into the shouting matches that pass for debate on cable news, discussion points are fact checked in real time and the audience is instructed to keep still so that the speakers focus on issues rather than applause lines.

The result, he said, is that a controversial figure like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach can have a debate with his polar opposites on immigration without anyone needing to have his blood pressure checked at the door.

He wishes more of American society could behave that way.

“No one’s asking anyone to give up their beliefs,” he said. But it is within the power of Republicans and Democrats alike to talk politics at the Super Bowl party without invective.

Save the insults for Tom Brady.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks

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