". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Friendly Disagreements

Pastor Stuckwisch has some interesting thoughts about communication this week. His main point has to do with the difficulty of civil debate. In a culture that so highly values self-esteem and sensitivity and political correctness it can be hard to disagree with others, particularly friends, because disagreement is often taken as a personal affront. (Does anyone else find it ironic that in this era of "niceness" there seems to be a coincidental decline in awareness of good manners? But I digress.) We have a hard time separating people's ideas from the people themselves. Somehow we think that if someone disagrees with us it means they are attacking us personally. Yet think about the political commentators and politicians who go after each other on television and then shake hands and enjoy a beer together afterward. Think about the prosecutors and defense attorneys who do the same. Think about James Carville and Mary Matalin, for goodness' sake. It IS possible for people to hold different opinions and still be friends, family members, members of the same church, etc. But it takes a little more work, I think, than maintaining a relationship with someone who thinks exactly the same as you. There's a certain comfort in knowing you agree with someone. It's a nice feeling. It binds you together and sort of makes you feel like you're on the same team. As Pastor Stuckwisch notes, it fosters a feeling of "us" against "them." So our wont, when differences come up, is to gloss over them or pretend they don't exist and look for that thing we can agree on so we can decide we really are the same after all. And yet that does not serve the cause of thoughtful debate, nor does it really serve the cause of friendship, because to pretend that we agree when we don't is ultimately dishonest. And the relationship that can weather a healthy debate (one that is civil and plays by the rules and doesn't resort to emotional games) is going to come out stronger in the end, as are the ideas of the parties in question. Even if no one "wins" the debate, the process of thinking and sharing and asking questions (again, if it's handled well) is only going to be a positive thing, assisting understanding, strengthening resolve, or perhaps leading to a reassessment of one's opinion. And what better forum is there for the exploration of ideas than the safety of a valued relationship, one that is based on trust and respect? Really, it makes a lot more sense to have such discussions with people whose opinions you care about than with acquaintances, or worse, faceless, nameless people out in cyberspace that you don't even know.

On the other hand, I suppose a case could be made that it is easier to engage in purely idea-driven discourse with someone you don't know because then the issues of feelings and personalities and influence don't color the debate and you can stick strictly to the world of ideas. If you aren't emotionally invested in the other person, you won't care about hurting his or her feelings and you won't be as likely to get yours hurt either, right? Yet if I don't care about someone then I also don't really care about what he thinks (unless he's a known expert on the topic at hand). And if I don't know someone it is a lot harder to ascertain if we are even in the same universe of thought. If we have different world views and underlying assumptions and values, there may be no point to entering into any sort of discussion at all. In fact I am acquainted with some lovely people whom I also know to be completely politically or theologically different from me, and by unspoken mutual agreeement we carefully avoid "those" subjects so as to preserve a pleasant and enjoyable relationship. Some might say that's cowardly; I call it sensible. I also know people about whose views on a multitude of topics I have no clue, and I am happy to keep it that way because I don't have the time or energy to do all the groundwork that would need to be done to get past surface conversation.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how very few people in the world I feel that it's worth disagreeing with. It's hard to do so with family members. Usually there is too much history, too many complicating factors, too much emotional baggage to be able to have a healthy debate. It's hard to do so with acquaintances, for the reasons outlined above. It's hard to do so with casual friends, because while there may be a veneer of good feelings the parties may have false assumptions about one another or the relationship may be too fragile or new to survive a significant difference of opinion. And it doesn't seem worth taking the time to disagree with strangers. (It's why I don't see the point of getting into online debates with people I don't know. Why do they care what I think and vice versa?)

So what should you take away from this post? If you ever find me disagreeing with you, you should take it as a high compliment and a testament to your specialness. (Except for my husband, of course, since I NEVER disagree with him. ☺ )


Cate (Supermom) said...

I'm like you, Cheryl; I generally find it easier to avoid topics with people where I know we'll disagree. It's not because I am not confident in the opinions I have, but more because I am not a confrontational person and grow very uncomfortable when there is a somewhat heated discussion in my presence.

Though unlike you I sometimes enjoy a good on-line debate, though I think that's because I find it much easier to express my opinion in the written word versus the spoken word and enjoy a good discussion at times.

Cheryl said...

Actually, Cate, I too appreciate online discussions. I am also much better (and braver) about expressing myself in writing. But I tend to only do that on email lists or blogs of people I know or share some connection or common ground with (like fellow Lutherans). I am not motivated to comment on nationally known websites or online newspaper columns or whatever because of the anonymity. I don't know the author or the other commenters and they don't me. I figure, why bother? I doubt that anything I say in such a context will sway anyone (and vice versa).