Much has been said over the past two years about the “coarsening of political discourse” in the United States, lamenting the devolution from discussing policy differences to name-calling and even character assassination. Traditionally, we have looked to our political leaders to inspire and remind us of the higher values of democracy and what it means to universally cherish life, liberty and the pursuit of prosperity — the original meaning of “happiness” in 1776. But few would disagree with the observation that public political conversation has become more polarized and confrontational.

In what is ostensibly a Christian society (although all major world religions espouse similar tenets), we are called to use our words to bring healing, confer value and build up others, not to wield our words as a sword of destruction. As humans we have occasional lapses in behavior and words that are counter to even the best of our intentions. But we know from experience that there is something inherently unhealthy, even deviant, about those who dwell on the negative or consistently impugn others’ ideas and character.

Somehow we have come to tolerate, perhaps even mimic, consistently negative language from prominent national and state leaders that demonizes others — even their sneers describing civil discourse as disingenuous political correctness. We may suspect dark reasons/values behind their positions on some issues and even see their deep character flaws. Yet, if they endorse some pet position that we hold, we give them a pass on their negative language, silently endorsing all their positions.

The outcome of all this, unfortunately, is that the political discourse modeled by these leaders becomes the norm, the sincere exchange of ideas becomes rare (or a sign of weakness) and proposed solutions to public challenges become polarized and extreme. Lost not only is the civility important in a democracy but the chance for people to really listen and learn from one another, consider opposing ideas and perhaps even come together around workable solutions that offer a broader consensus.

Frank A. Clark, a longtime, oft-quoted politician from the early 20th century, famously said, “We find comfort among those we agree with — growth among those we don’t.” Apparently, we need to re-learn this common-sense lesson for the sake of our democracy. The next time you hear words you disagree with, perhaps you shouldn’t just turn away, change the subject or flip to the next channel. Take the challenge to be open, at least a little — ask questions and listen for ideas that do make sense to you and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a little better understanding of the issues and how we might all come together for our common betterment. Choose words that avoid name-calling and invite discussion on things that matter. And dare to challenge our political leaders to use their words to inspire, promote discussion and show a readiness to listen and learn.

Jon Engelhardt is retired dean of the Baylor University School of Education. Jon, who has written for us previously, joins the Trib Board of Contributors with this column.