Another aspect of the complexity around navigating our differences and disagreements of our personal filters and mental models. By basic premise the past couple blogs is that we need better ways of disagreeing and living with differences of opinion, worldview and values. However, it has been interesting fielding emails that argue with things I don’t actually believe I’ve said. Here are three quotes from responses I received this week to ideas raised in the last two posts:
- “You are dangerously ignorant in thinking that all opinions and beliefs are of equal quality.”
- “So if no one is ever wrong, then why bother believing in anything?”
- “It is the responsibility of every Christian to use every weapon possible to defeat those who choose wrong, evil and sinful beliefs and practices.”
First, a general response, then I want to take each comment in turn.
The point I am trying to make is this: each of these comments is disagreeing with something I said. This is a GOOD thing. Disagreement is not the problem. Each statement poses an alternative thought, concept, approach or perspective to my own. This is GOOD. I happen to disagree with the points raised by each writer. This is GOOD. Where things could take a nasty turn is in one of the following scenarios:
- we frame our further conversation in terms of who is “right” and who is “wrong”. At the very least we can choose to seek legitimacy and value in what the other is saying. I don’t think I said anything like what each person perceived and interpreted — but they have as much right to their interpretation as I have to my intention. If there is misunderstanding, then we have a mutual opportunity and responsibility to bridge our confusion and create understanding.
- we climb the ladder of inference and begin projecting what the other person “meant” instead of beginning with exactly what the other person “said”. Each of these statements implies a meaning that I did not consciously intend. Once we lay a foundation of unsubstantiated assumptions, we have nothing solid upon which to proceed.
- we personalize our responses rather than stay focused on the ideas and concepts. The moment one of us makes a personal statement about the character, values, intelligence or integrity of the other person, we have undermined any positive relational engagement, and the conversation is no longer about what we think, feel or believe, but it is about who we are.
- we become reactive, defensive, angry, aggressive or even violent. To charge a response with emotion, especially early in the exchange, shifts the dynamic from productive exchange to destructive drain. Fueling emotion subverts reason, rational thought, and positive regard.
What I have been proposing is simply this: each person who disagrees with me has the right to their opinion/beliefs. Our first decision is whether or not this disagreement has positive value or not. If we believe it has value, we will seize the opportunity to engage, and hopefully learn and grow as well as teach and persuade. The worst thing that can happen is that we might part unchanged. The second decision is HOW we will disagree. If I commit to civil, respectful, kind, compassionate, tolerant, patient, and receptive engagement, disagreement will be one kind of experience. If I commit to a competitive, “win/lose,” aggressive, forceful, “either/or” approach, disagreement will something completely different. My lament is that we tend in our culture — including our church culture — to adopt the competitive/aggressive approach from the position that everyone has a right to MY opinion. No person consciously or intentionally defends a belief, thought, value or idea they know to be wrong. We think we are right because it would be irrational to live by a set of standards we think are wrong, stupid or unreasonable.
I could say the people who disagree with me are stupid. I could say they are merely ignorant and misguided. I could say they are narrow-minded and negative. I could even patronizingly say they just don’t “get me.” To what good end or value do such assumptions lead? Instead, I want to clarify where we are at odds, see if we really just don’t understand each other, and offer any further thinking that might lead to understanding. If I find each person understands perfectly but simply disagree with me, then I can live with that.
To the first person I would ask him to point out to me where I said that all opinions are of equal value? I want to see where he draws this idea from, and how he perceives my meaning. My defensive hackles rise because I don’t believe the statement is true, so I feel confident that I would never say it. What I believe is that every person has a right to their opinion — even the right to be wrong. It doesn’t mean I agree with them or value what they believe. But I choose to value THEM, so I will not deny a person the right to say what they think. Also, there are times when I would (and have) vocally disagree with a position I felt was hurtful, inflammatory, bigoted or offensive, though I would try to do it first in the most respectful manner possible. (Case in point, a man attending a woman’s basketball game was shouting at a female official, calling her a coarse word, slang for female genitalia. There were children present. I went to him, asked him not to use the language, was told to f— off, so I said I would get ushers to kick him out if I heard it again. He cursed me again, and I told him he was being a selfish ass and he needed to respect others and be mindful of the kids. At the end, I was no longer polite — but it didn’t START there.)
The second statement is similar, and here is what I wrote back: “I want to make sure I am clear — everyone disagrees. The moment I decide something is right, good, true, helpful, important, or sensible I draw a boundary. Anyone who sees the same thing and thinks it is wrong, bad, false, hurtful, worthless or stupid disagrees with me. Heck, on any given day I might be in disagreement with myself — I look at a new sweater I thought was beautiful a year ago and now say, ‘what was I thinking?!’ But I have what I consider “good” reasons for thinking what I think and believing what I believe. It is critically important for me to remember, the person I am disagreeing with thinks he/she has “good” reasons for thinking what she thinks and believing what she believes. Could she be wrong — I mean, objectively, absolutely, universally wrong? Yes, and I have every right to disagree and even challenge her. But I have a variety of choices how I will disagree with her. There is simply nothing to be gained by framing our disagreement in terms of a fight, a conflict, a debate, a war or struggle. I love the difference between the etymology of the two words “conversation” and “discussion”. Con-verse is “with words,” dis-cuss is “without hitting.” Think about it.”
The questions I would ask the third person are difficult because through certain filters they could be perceived as inflammatory. I would like to understand why certain words are chosen — “weapon,” “defeat,” “evil,” “sinful.” I am mindful that these words trigger feelings in me, and I ought to avoid jumping to conclusions. These words make me wonder if this person isn’t adopting an adversarial position as his default. When words, phrases, tone of voice, inflection, volume, etc. are tools, they will be used to build; but when they are weapons they will be used to tear down. Defeat is not a conciliatory or collaborative word in my experience. If my approach is to defeat those with whom I disagree, then bridge-building, understanding, compromise, growth and change are much harder to achieve. When I frame alternative opinions, ideas and practices as “evil” and “sinful” I marginalize our call to unity, harmony, reconciliation, mercy, trust, community and body. Will there ultimately be those on the inside and those on the outside? Yes, I don’t think there is any question — each of us will live with the consequences of our thoughts, beliefs, actions, and practices. But first, each of us must look to our own salvation, not judge the salvation of others.
I close with a thought about how we resolve the unresolvable — what happens when someone who is really, really wrong won’t change? Baby boomers, by and large, were taught to deal with bullies by hauling off and punching them in the nose (since the conventional wisdom is that bullies are really cowards, and standing up to them is the key to having them leave you alone…), but we can see how well that worked out. Yet, we can see models and illustrations of schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and territories where bullying has been effectively addressed. The key is every case? Community. When individuals disagree, it often becomes a fight. One on one, it is very difficult to judge right from wrong. But when a group of people generate consensus on what is good, what is right, what is helpful and affirming, they dynamic changes. A bully loves to pick off victims one by one. But when a bully faces a community? When a group stands together on what will be tolerated and what will not? Then the environment for change is created. The Bible has a lot to say about community. Perhaps we should read it and reflect on what it has to say…