What’s to be done with the divisiveness in American politics and political discourse? One answer is to join the fight, steak out a claim and shout down one’s adversaries—fight fire with fire. Another answer is to simply accept that “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” and not engage. But another approach is the concept of discussion as a civil and healthy interaction of ideas. Discussion can take two forms: dialogue and debate.
In dialogue, people engage in a free-flow of ideas. With dialogue people can think aloud or may not completely believe in the idea that they express at any given point. The parties open themselves up to change their own minds. In debate, people assume fixed ideological positions and engage opposing viewpoints with refutation and rebuttal. They seek to influence the opinion of a listening audience.
People generally prefer the term dialogue. Debate sounds adversarial and it should. Debate is adversarial. Debate is not mean-spirited, disrespectful, undisciplined and irrational. So much of what occurs on the shout down shows and talk radio programs would not meet my definition of debate. In her helpful book, The Debate Culture, socio-linguist Deborah Tannen criticizes the mental constructs that seeks to turn every intellectual pursuit into a competitive exercise. Not every question has two sides. Some have more and some have less. Though I agree with many of her observations, I still think debate serves a useful function if people understand it.
The purpose of debate is to provide a rigorous examination of ideas so that an audience can make up their minds. True debaters—from high school debate tournament teams to advocates before the Supreme Court—are actors in a drama in pursuit of truth. Their positions are constructions. That’s not to say disingenuous or fabrications. But the conventions of debate involve people taking positions and holding those positions for the duration of the debate. The goal is to provide as intelligent an engagement of the ideas as possible allowing observers of the debate (juries, judges, audiences) to make up their minds about what to believe and how to act. Debate, it should be kept in mind, is an intellectual methodology. Debate is a performed act of dialectic.
The differences between dialogue and debate deserve consideration that I will not give here. I will assert that there are times for debate and times for dialogue and leave it at that. I’m more interested in what makes dialogue and debate possible—the prerequisites of genuine discussion.
I just finished reading Harvard Rules by Richard Bradley. It describes the first three years of the presidency of Larry Summers, Harvard’s current president. It’s mainly a fairly stingy indictment of Summers. Sort of an academic and political soap opera. Well written, well documented and a lot of fun–if you like hearing about such crazy events (which I do).
Anyway, I was surprised at the number of times Bradley describes the Harvard students and faculty protesting a controversial speaker. It seems to me that if a speaker that you find objectionable is scheduled to speak on campus, the last thing you would want to do is public protest their speech. First, it draws attention to the speech. Second, protestors don’t look intelligent anymore. Mobs are mobs and they all look stupid. But most of all, it seems that you have a greater chance of refuting a person’s lunacy if you let them speak and then critique their speech with logic and argumentation. Persuasion is more effective when the inferior argument is heard, understood and then shown to be inferior than when it is merely shouted down.
I think the same is true of teaching abstinence versus teaching about other forms of contraception. I believe in teaching abstinence. However, I disagree with those who would like to teach abstinence and abstinence alone. It’s more effective to put show the superiority of abstinence over contraception. Abstinence is 100% effective in preventing Sexually Transmitted Diseases (assuming that abstinence includes all forms of sex). Contraception will vary in its effectiveness. Condoms are good and the pill does nothing to reduce the risk of an STD. But, nothing comes close to the 100% effectiveness of abstinence. Similarly, in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Abstinence is 100% effective. No form of contraception can touch that. Emotional problems associated with sexuality are a bit trickier to put percentages to. However, the emotional repression that might occur with an abstinent lifestyle is preferable to the emotional problems that emerge from sexual promiscuity.
My point here is not to argue about abstinence though I’m willing to defend what I just said. My point rather is to say that if a person is truly concerned about what is right then they ought not oppose so vigilantly the expression of what is wrong. By trying to shout down opponents only adds to their credibility. Calmly giving them the freedom to express their ideas and then intelligently showing the superiority of one’s position is much more persuasive.
Yesterday, I watched Lewis Black addressing the radio and television correspondents awards dinner on C-SPAN. He was trying very hard to be funny. I’ve always thought that stand up comedians made poor after dinner speakers. True, after dinner speaking is meant to be entertaining–hopefully funny. However, the setting doesn’t work for the type of one-line, quick banter jokes told by the typical stand-up comedian. After dinner speeches are leisurely walks where as stand up comedy is generally a sprint. The audience had consumed enough alcohol to laugh louder than they ought to at his jokes. But as I soberly sat on my sofa, I could tell–it wasn’t that funny. But I applaud his effort and the effort of anyone who goes out on a limb and tries to be funny in public–on demand.
Trying to be funny on demand is one of the riskier feats attempted by speakers. Trying to be funny and failing is embarrassing by itself. Trying and failing at anything in public is embarrassing–ask people who go out of the first round in a slam dunk contest. But you also have the embarrassment of having people know you’re uncool–like when you wear the out-of-style clothes or admit to liking a musician everyone else think stinks. By the way, I’ve never understood really why Michael Bolton is ridiculed but Neil Diamond is hip. When you think something is funny and say it out loud suddenly people know you thought something was funny that really wasn’t. You’ve not only failed in public, but you’ve also displayed that you’re not cool.
Most of the humor I attempt comes from the pulpit. Pulpits are safe places to attempt humor. They’re safe because no one really expects sermons to be funny. They expect them to be boring. So even if my attempts at humor fail, people generally appreciate the effort to liven up an otherwise boring experience. It’s also safe because people will generally give a courtesy laugh or two. Of course, eventually people get to know pastors and will eventually tell them that they are not really funny. They either whisper it conspiratorially to a minister as if to be helpful or else blurt it out in public simply to be annoying. Hint to people who feel they must tell a minister that he or she is not funny: We already know! If we were successfully funny and cool enough to know it, do you really think we’d be ministry?
A friend of mine once said, “Guilt is a completely worthless emotion.” She, like me, had grown up in a conservative denomination and wrestled with a heightened sense of guilt. Many contemporary writers seemed to have joined the assault on feeling guilty. Several books including some of my favorites have joined the anti-guilt ethos of the day. The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning to name just one.
Indeed, the problems with perpetual guilt feeling are numerous. Guilt cheats happiness and frequently impedes spiritual growth. But I wonder if guilt doesn’t need to be re-examined. When I was a boy, Sunday School teachers were fond of making the distinction between conviction (being convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit) and guilt. The conviction of the Holy Spirit remains until we have repented. Guilt remains whether we repent or not and often we feel guilt for things that we really ought not feel guilty about. Building on those early thoughts, I thought I would try to make a few other observations clarifying the difference between guilt and conviction.
DISCERNMENT–Discernment is a process of spiritual decision making. It involves our own intelligence in conversation with scripture, tradition and the faith community of which we are a part. When you experience feelings of guilt try to locate the source of the principle you feel you have violated. For instance, many people feel guilty for being late for an appointment. Where do we get the idea that being late is a bad thing? Primarily, we get it from our culture. To say that doesn’t mean its OK to be perpetually late. There are many advantages for being on time to things. It is, after all, a show of respect to the person with whom you have an appointment. But, there’s nothing particularly godly about punctuality or ungodly about being late. Once you have identified the location of the principle, rate the offesne of terms of its real seriousness. We often feel guilt that is out of proportion to the offense.
EXAMINE–Is the thing that’s nagging at you really your fault? If so, what specifically is your fault? Often times people take actions or make statements that upset other people. They will try to apologize when they realize that another person’s feelings were hurt. Yet, we cannot control other people’s feelings nor assume responsibility for them. We must know what we believe to be the ethical and sensitive way to communicate something and try to communicate in ethical and sensitive ways. If we have done that and people are still offended, it may not be our fault.
CHOOSE A DIRECTION–Confessing sins to God is a good first step; however, we often need to try to repair the relationship that has been hurt by our sin. Along these lines, we have to make a choice. We should reconcile where possible and apologize when necessary. At the same time, we need to ask whether trying to address the hurt wouldn’t raise more pain than relieve. It’s all very difficult. But ultimately we should learn from our offense and seek to correct our past mistakes with our future actions.
I think better when the space I’m in is uncluttered.
Too many interruptions intrude on communication. I should make bracketed comments sparingly.
I may have to learn to write more directly on the fly.
Currently I am reading Ranier Maria Rilke’s poems that have been selected, translated and commented upon by Robert Bly. I don’t know enough about poetry to evaluate Rilke’s literary merit. His poetry seems to verge on obsessively introspective. But, I have become enthralled by one poem—“Der Schauende” translated “The Man Watching” by Bly. I don’t know what copyright laws apply here so I want reproduce the total poem here. The poem begins by the describing the changes to the earth which come through storms, wind and weather. He then shifts to assessing our human experience.
“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we could let ourselves be dominated
as things do by immense storm
we would become strong too, and not need names.”
He makes reference to Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel though he speaks of wrestling matches as though it occurred more than once and with more people than Jacob. He suggests that Jacob grew, became strong and sought growth not through the mastery of the world but through the submission to the divine elements that confronted him. The final lines of the poem: “This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, /by constantly greater things.”
Two thoughts occurred to me as I read and re-read this poem. First, that Rilke identifies not only with nature but also with a particular biblical character. It seems that identification with biblical heroes does not occur as much anymore. Nor, does it seem that we really want any heroes. Have we lost a sense that ancient myths stand in our place? That we can fight our battles through them. Win with them. Lose with them. Struggle and renew the struggle with them? Have we lost our ability to choose a mythical hero to be our hero? Have we lost it because so many were violent? Or that too few were women? Or because all were flawed? We lap up at the pools of scandals but do not want even the scent of one on us. So we deny heroes. Deny them because to say, “I am of Paul” is forbidden. Forbidden by Paul, yes, but with qualifications. Forbidden also by ourselves. Forbidden by our surroundings that believe the secrets people hide disqualify the virtues people wear.
Can our ship tossed about by life’s wind and waves not be Noah’s Ark? Can we not see bush’s burn or be guided by clouds Do people no longer leave nets simply at the sound of a voice? Can I not wrestle with the angel along side Jacob and in wrestling grow stronger.
The other thought that occurs to me concerns the idea of submission. Rilke’s poem suggest submission to divine or noble purposes. Read with a certain masculine lens, the whole suggestion of being defeated to grow stronger is anathema. We master, overcome, triumph, manage and manipulate. Yet Christ’s call is precisely the call to be “defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.” In particular, to be conquered decisively by God which is a metaphor for submission to God’s will. We can fill our lives pursuing the goals we set for ourselves and manage to accomplish little of merit or we can allow God’s vision for us to overwhelm and guide us and move forward in growth.