While reading a biography of John Adams, I recently came across a phrase describing an attitude that I believe would do us a lot of good in our daily life. Abigail Adams’ father was a Harvard graduate and a minister. He taught his children how to conduct themselves, including the phrase, “Make topics rather than people the subject” of your speech. That is obviously good advice for preachers’ kids, but for all of us. That one phrase struck me as such a simple and profound concept that it caught my attention.
How much of our political and religious debate either includes or even centers on personal attacks and diminution of another person or people? The volume of such encounters seems to have increased in recent years, but is certainly not new. Newspapers, pamphlets and speeches have always contained personal references to people rather than their ideas or beliefs. Those made fun of personal appearance, ways of walking and speech patterns. Yet in more honorable times, the content of the speech took precedence over any distractions about a person. Not so lately.
I have quoted others who I believed had valid ideas and observances only to have an attack on the person quoted as the first reply. The value of the quote (either to agree or disagree) was never mentioned, but only the person making the original statement. This left the point unanswered, and seemed to be an inability to respond to its validity. This is unfortunately all too common, and is even a strategy (if unconsciously) of those who are willing to engage in debate. In the process, the back-and-forth breaks down and no longer a legitimate discussion of differences based on topics but a series of derogatory claims designed to harm the personal reputation of a person or people.
I need the “Make topics rather than people” concept as a reminder. It is not too late to elevate a healthy discussion to a respectable level. I will fight the urge to make things personal, and recognize a good point when I hear or read it, even if I disagree with most or all the rest of a person’s beliefs.