DeHate the Debate: Seeking a Common Ground to Disagree Without Disrespect

By: Tom O’Neill 

Few would disagree that there’s a lack of civility today in politics, on many social media platforms and in the public square, especially when it comes to hot button issues. Last night, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Regis College called DeHate the Debate: Seeking a Common Ground to Disagree Without Disrespect to look deeper at this subject. WCVB political reporter Janet Wu moderated the discussion with panelists Newton Mayor Setti Warren, Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, former CNN White House correspondent and owner of Little Park Media Dan Lothian, Gatehouse Media West Regional Director of News Operations Anne Brennan and myself.

While we spoke of the need for new ground rules to help prevent conflict, the media effect of poor political role models, and the challenges that come with the right to free speech, ultimately the discussion came down to social media. From social platforms like Twitter and Facebook to tailored Google results, the way in which people receive news and information has heightened existing frictions among individuals and groups with conflicting beliefs. Social media sites are incredibly good for sharing content, including human interest stories and gossip from non-reputable sources with questionable accuracy. Too often social media users take these stories as fact, especially they play into their political beliefs or agenda.

Our panel was unanimous; the best way to ease tensions and achieve a calmer discussion is to speak with facts – do your research, look at the issue from all sides, and have the conversation face to face or as panelist Mayor Warren put it, “human to human.” Mayor McCarthy in answering a question about whether the rules for public debate have changed, said it best, “There aren’t any rules. That is the problem” because of the lack of face-to-face contact “people say anything they want without repercussions.” It takes little courage to post a controversial statement online, but that’s not the case when one is called out in person. We need more in-person contact with each other.

Thank you to Regis College for giving us the opportunity to have this open, honest discussion about remaining level-headed in the face of disagreement. As I said last night, acceptance of others and their beliefs begins at home, but it is essential that the conversation is continued by educators. As a graduate of a Jesuit institution, I strongly believe in educating the whole person, in learning about an issue from all sides and in being able to discuss those opinions in a civilized manner.  It is the job of all leaders to talk about the importance of civility as a societal standard by which we live. If we can embody that standard through our words and actions, then disagreements would no longer have to be synonymous with disrespect.