The Golden Rule and Public Discourse

When I was in grade school, we used to do activities to improve reading comprehension.  In fact, I believe there were portions of the SAT that were specifically designed to test the student’s ability to comprehend different essays and articles.  Is it really necessary to be able to comprehend the plot of a novel or to discern the logical assertions of an article?  In high school, you may have hated quizzes for reading comprehension because it meant you actually had to read that boring novel Great Expectations more closely.


Reading comprehension is foundational for discourse in the public square. The skill of comprehension allows us to understand the words of others; it’s what makes communication possible.  Before personal reflection, before analyzing perspectives, before dissecting the logical assertions and determining their value and truth, we must first comprehend fully what is being communicated.

The problem in our society filled with blogger-opinions (guilty as charged), prolific news media outlets on T.V., radio, and internet, and social media platforms, is that we have come to value reaction instead of comprehension.  Here is what I mean: we form immediate judgements, either in support of or in opposition to what is written or said, before we have spent any time comprehending the article, work, or argument.

Strong dividing lines through society–whether political, religious, or social–have grown stronger as each of us is encouraged to react according to our specific ideological presuppositions.  No author, speaker, or artist is afforded his day in court.  We pass judgments long before we have begun to comprehend what we have read.  Or even worse, we begin to pass judgments before we have finished reading (or even begun reading!) the work.  How many times have you read this statement online: “I haven’t read the whole thing, but…”?

Shouting in the Public Square.

angry-coupleThe internet in some ways has become the great equalizer.  Men and women no longer need to be “published” in order to gain a readership.  Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can host a professional looking website and make himself seem as qualified to spout off his opinions as a well-trained PhD or experienced analyst.  What is worse, social media have made it possible to disseminate these articles and perspectives at an incredible rate.

The internet has quickly devolved into a public square where everyone is shouting.  Just look at the comments section of any article or read your Facebook wall.  Where is the comprehension?  We post articles we haven’t completely read, we recommend perspectives that we ourselves haven’t even understood, and we shout down anything that appears on the surface to contradict our firmly held beliefs.

Two groups are shouting at one another from opposing positions.  Then there are those who are shouting at the ones shouting, telling them to quit shouting.  It’s quite loud.  In all of this flash and smoke, the sad thing is that ideas are being left behind.  We no longer comprehend anything, but we are very good at forming strong reactions.

The Golden Rule Requires Comprehension.

Everyone knows the Golden Rule, or at least some form of it.  For a quick refresher, here is how Jesus states in Matthew’s Gospel:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
~Matthew 7:12

When we abandon full comprehension and choose instead to pour forth violent reaction, we are not affording our neighbor the same care and consideration we ourselves would appreciate.  When you write something, say something, make something, do you want your readers to hear you out?  When you share your perspective, do you want to be completely understood?  Why then do you not afford the same loving courtesy to others?

It is not wrong or unloving to disagree with a perspective.  However, it is unloving and against the golden rule to form judgment and evaluation before you have fully comprehended another’s argument.  It is also wrong to speak dismissively of those you disagree with.  Your desire in public discourse should be to promote truth–not prove you are right.  As you point out flaws in a person’s logic or problems in a writer’s perspective, you must remember that that person was created in the image of God.  You must also remember that you yourself are prone to error, and so we must speak with humility.

The truth must be spoken.  As believers, we are truth-tellers.  When falsehood is spilled into the public arena, Christians have the responsibility to confront it–but all of this must be done in love (Ephesians 4:15).  It is not unloving to tell someone they are wrong; in fact it is very loving.  However, when we choose not to do the hard work to fully comprehend their perspective, we forfeit the right to express any opinions or judgment statements.

Comprehension must preclude discussion.  If you cannot express fully the author’s perspective in terms that he himself would affirm, you are not ready to converse with him or his ideas.  There is a reason why so many students hate reading comprehension: it’s hard.  It takes time.  It means we can’t fly off the handle every time we sniff an opinion we might possibly disagree with.

However, as followers of Christ, we must afford others the same courtesy, study, and comprehension that we ourselves would desire–this is the golden rule at work in our public square.  The next time you feel an impulse to share your opinion, ask yourself: Do I really understand what I have read, seen, or heard?  Am I speaking this truth in love?  If the answer is no, then the old adage applies: “If you can’t say something nice, better to say nothing at all!”

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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