I am big on dialogue, on civil conversation even when disagreeing, and doing everything I can to understand other people’s points of view. I believe we are doing great harm by polarizing every disagreement into hostile debate, and feel that the Christian witness should be significantly more mature and tolerant than the dominant culture. I feel that the disrespectful, dismissive, and aggressive modes of engagement we are currently employing actively destroy any remaining credibility, integrity, and trust with an already cynical and skeptical society. But because I believe that mature critical thinking demands that we understand those who hold radically different beliefs and postures, it does not hold that I think all opinions and worldviews are “right,” “correct,” or “true.” Understanding other ways of thinking does no imply agreement or acceptance. I do, however, hold that collective reasoning is more reliable than individual reasoning, and that we are best served when we allow the majority to discern how we will live together.
At the same time, I believe we need to honestly and accurately name what we encounter. But words matter. To identify a perspective as racist is very different than calling a person racist. To clarify a perspective as ignorant is different than calling a person stupid or some more derisive and demeaning invective. And to challenge poor reasoning or ridiculous conspiracy theory is more important than ever, but without attacking those who subscribe.
Not long ago, I was in a meeting with a group of about a dozen very diverse folks, when someone made a comment about how discouraged and angry they were that voter fraud stole the election from Donald Trump. A couple other people chimed in that they agreed it was a crime, but the majority in the room vehemently disagreed and the discussion poised on the precipice of name-calling and insult. I asked the group if they would be willing to do an exercise together, and would they have an open mind to accept the results we came up with. Here in a nutshell was the exercise:
- We would generate a list of five sources acceptable to all the participants in the room (we agreed to Associated Press, British Broadcasting, Pew Research, Gallup, and Newsweek).
- We would take fifteen minutes to find discrete citations providing evidence for voter fraud in the 2020 election.
- We would take fifteen minutes to find discrete citations providing evidence against voter fraud in the 2020 election.
- We would achieve consensus around the weight of evidence one way or the other.
The group discovered 17 citations supporting voter fraud; most of them in local settings where irregularities could be traced to errors in the transmission of votes. In seven cases, suspected fraud favored Joe Biden; in ten cases it favored Donald Trump. We discovered over 300 citations against voter fraud, and that limit came only because we ran out of time. We noted that the majority of reports claiming voter fraud (and there were thousands) drew from about a dozen sources in a few states, citing the same concerns over and over. Evidence supporting a clean and legal election came from hundreds of sources across the country, at all levels of government. The group allowed that the evidence was overwhelming that there was no (or very limited) fraud, and that it did not significantly favor the winner over the loser. Two of the people who lamented the integrity of the last election changed their minds, reflecting that what a little research turned up was very different from much of what we heard from media outlets. One person made this fascinating response: “I accept that the evidence shows there was no fraud, but I don’t believe it. Evidence isn’t proof; proof will show that the last election was a corrupt joke. I still believe the election was stolen.” The rest of the group began to attack this person, but I asked, “You’re just stating what you believe, correct? You have the right to believe whatever you want to, but do you better understand now why so many people think differently than you do?” He pushed out his lips, breathed heavily through his nose, and said, “Yeah, okay, I guess so, but I wish I wasn’t made a villain just because I believe differently. I can accept that Biden is president, but I will always believe he really lost the election.”
You may have a very strong reaction to this story one way or the other. You may feel that one side “won the argument,” and that denying evidence is irrational. I made very clear that I honor critical thinking and where the evidence is strong, you pay attention. But I cannot control how others think or reason and all I can do is offer ways for people to process more deeply and broadly. I am committed to trying to help people think well, but it is not up to me to tell people what to think. When I do that I become part of the problem instead of the solution. Not that I don’t want to tell people I think they are wrong or ignorant or irrational. I just find that this doesn’t do much good.
I was speaking with a farmer in Wisconsin recently who was furious at the Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations for “taking his farm away from him.” He lamented the shifting immigration policies with the following fascinating retelling of history. “I built this dairy on the sweat of wetbacks who I could pay next to nothing. It was the only way I could make a living. Bush promised to help farmers, but the only people he helped were the big aggies (Agribusiness). He made it almost impossible for me to get my help. It got easier under Hussein Obama, then Trump drove in the daggers. I voted for Bush twice and Trump twice,” I said, “I’m confused. You are telling me that Bush and Trump made it impossible for you to hire cheap immigrant labor, but you are blaming Obama and Biden for… what exactly?” “I want strict immigration policy in place, but I want special exception for being a farmer. Obama and Biden are destroying our country. I want Mexicans to work for me; I don’t want them to live near me.” Innocently, I asked, “Okay, but if they could come here to live, wouldn’t that make them easier to hire, and couldn’t you keep your farm?” He paused for a moment, then said, “It isn’t worth the risk; first thing you know they would take over.” I responded, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I understand what you’re saying.”
That’s what I said. What I wanted to say I can’t (won’t) print here. His comments reflect an implicit and explicit racism, lack of understanding of the way policy works, a basic belief in the fact that government no longer represents the rural community, the family farm, or the little guy. Entitlement thinking and unreflective non-systems thinking is clearly present. But also present is heartfelt emotion, nostalgia, simple reasoning, and a deep sense of loss. Fear, anxiety, resentment, and distrust are strong. To talk down to this individual, to call him names, to try to embarrass or denigrate him – what purpose would it serve? Individuals may feel this way, and theirs is a complex and convoluted way of thinking and seeing the world. It is important to meet such people where they are as individuals, but to work hard collectively to make sure such thinking does not dominate our social and cultural comprehension. There will always be people who believe in things we might personally hold as ludicrous, irrational, or even dangerous, but such people are still children of God and our beloved siblings. To care for people while disagreeing with them is a huge part of the challenge. But loving the people and caring for them does not mean agreeing with them or allowing poor reasoning and toxic thinking to go unchallenged.
I got a note from the farmer the week after we met. He wrote, “You must of thought I was a real hard case after our talk. I’m not a racist; I have grate (sic) respect for many of the men who worked for me over the years, and I helped two men become citizens. I just can’t take any more change and I don’t want to lose my land, especially to people who used to work for me. You probly (sic) don’t understand, but I wanted you to know I’m not such a bad guy.” And you know what? He really isn’t a bad guy, though I will probably never share his way of thinking.