From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. – Philippians 4:8
It is not my intention to come across as cynical or to join the unnumbered throngs of Internet naysayers, but this week I find myself none too optimistic when it comes to how we go about engaging with one another with regard to subjects we may not agree on.
It’s not the disagreement that bothers me but the unwillingness to listen, to accommodate, to compromise, to question ourselves, or to even consider the possibility (likelihood, certainty) that we may be wrong or at the very least have something to learn.
What I’m talking about is the political and social equivalent of religious folk insisting people who question their particular dogma are not “Bible-believing.” Fact is, what qualifies someone as “Bible-believing” is less about scripture and more about agreeing with their rigid interpretations – not about The Authority of scripture but my authority to interpret scripture.
One common thread that runs through both the political and the religious is a disquieting knee-jerk suspicion of honest intellectual inquiry. Scholarship and critical thinking are automatically described as “elitist”, thereby neatly dismissing any line of inquiry that might rock the boat of pre-determined, not open to debate, I’m-right you’re-wrong, conclusions.
This way of suppressing disagreement was practiced and perfected by both the fascists and the communists. Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Mao’s China are just three examples of suppressing debate by first ridiculing, then marginalizing, then arresting, then beating, then killing so-called “elites” when – or even before – they questioned the lies.
It starts as subtle propaganda:
I can’t count how many times I’ve seen stories pitting “The Godless Professor” against “The wholesome Christian” (here is a compilation of several examples) – they’re emailed, forwarded, shared, and reposted every day. In every iteration, simple homespun wisdom defeats the unpatriotic, atheistic agenda of the “elitist” while affirming the goodness of the honest, God-fearing American. If you look these up and then place them alongside the anti-intellectual propaganda of 1930’s Germany then I can guarantee you will be horrified.
People who absolutely insist they are right, and who describe people who see things differently as “stupid”, or “unChristian”, or “antiAmerican” demonstrate an orientation that stands at odds with the founding principles of this country!
Absent compromise, absent honest disagreement there is no Constitution, no Bill of Rights, no vote for women, and no right to citizenship for blacks.
Name-calling those who stake out positions contrary to your own convictions is more likely to illustrate the weakness of your opinion and the shakiness of your foundation than to convince me to embrace your point of view.
So How Should We Proceed?
The only way forward in such a social climate is to model what is appropriate and to engage people we disagree with in respectful conversation.
Additionally, we must not be afraid to be honest when it comes to how much we all need to learn from each other. Personally, I change my mind a lot – not because I’m wishy-washy or lack conviction, but because I am nowhere close to knowing it all, and I am only just now scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the hopes and the dreams and the loves and the fears of people like you, God’s children every one.
So don’t be afraid of what you don’t know and who you don’t know, put your listening ears on, make room in your heart for people you may never understand, and thank God from the depths of who you are that you don’t have to be right all the time…