"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Food Fight in the Media: Is Peace Possible During (Ideological) War?

It isn’t every day the media brawls over a cake. But this dessert just made it to the Supreme Court, teeing up what Court-watchers expect to be a blockbuster case.

The facts are simple enough: Jack Phillips owns a public accommodation and refuses to serve gays because of his bigoted prejudices. But wait… maybe the facts are that Jack Phillips owns an artistic cake shop, and he does not design cakes that convey messages in conflict with his deeply held religious beliefs. The answer depends on whether you happen to be reading thoughts from National Review or the ACLU.

Of course, we all agree that “freedom means freedom for all,” and that no one should be able to “coerce a minority of people to see the world their way.” What you probably didn’t guess is that I pulled these two quotations from articles on opposite sides of the issue. Both sides claim the moral high ground. And without a grasp on how to process contentions sparked by ideological differences, the average American simply soaks up the rhetoric from their favorite news echo chamber and joins in by screaming slogans of their own.

The problem with sloganeering isn’t that it fails to express truth. The problem is that it frequently claims a broad value (like “justice” or “fairness” or “equality”) without relating it to any substantive argument that is actually at hand. This implies that the other side is anti-justice, anti-fairness, or anti-equality, when in reality both sides are arguing for what they believe is just and right.

To be fair, activists use broad language because they want to relate to a broad audience. That makes sense. And no one expects social media campaigns to switch from succinct hashtags like #FreeAustinTice to #ValueFreedom OfThePressByNotImprisoningReportersForExposingGovernmentMisconductAndTherebySupportAMore LimitedGovernmentAndWiderDisseminationOfKnowledge. That’s actually ten characters longer than Twitter will allow.

But it’s entirely different to use trite sayings to imply that people who disagree with a certain viewpoint are wicked and entitled to subhuman treatment. Indeed, some appear to truly believe that their political opponents are intentionally evil—a phenomenon that Arthur Brooks calls “political motive asymmetry.”

Deep divides in society are never going to disappear. The question is how we choose to respond to disagreements, even when they cut to the core of how we think and act. This kind of quest for peace in the midst of dissent is what Washington University law Professor John Inazu calls “confident pluralism.” Confident pluralism recognizes that people can argue and that some opinions are actually wrong, but it holds that controversy doesn’t necessitate combat. It is possible to respect others, even while refuting their positions on deeply important issues. Inazu writes that this requires tolerance, humility, and patience. Understanding that others see the world from a different perspective doesn’t mean conceding that they are right, but it does mean forsaking the attitude that all political opponents are evil imbeciles.

Keep on debating the issues that matter. Societal debate is not only inevitable, it is also beneficial in refining ideas and seeking the truth. But everyone involved in this exchange of ideas bears the responsibility to convey messages that are accurate and duly respectful. Anything else tends only to anxiety, discord, and even violence. And while keeping on the high road in heated debates is no cakewalk, it’s definitely worth the effort.