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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

You Stupid-head!

I have a suspicion, and it has been growing these last few weeks. I suspect that we are losing the art of disagreement. We just don't know how to disagree anymore. As I have thought about this over the course of this last week (My reflections were kicked up a notch after a conversation I had on Dave Schmelzer's blog) I have begun to firm up this suspicion into a full blown theory.

Before I go full bore into this idea, let me lay my cards on the table: I love debate. I love discussion, argument, seminar, dialectic. The back and forth of competing ideas in an effort to discover truth makes me all tingly inside. Seriously, I remember in  college I would drop nearly anything to sit down at a table and launch into disagreement with a classmate over some bit of arcane theological minutia. And if that weren't bad enough, I tend to romanticize debate. The deeper an argument goes, the more likely I am to see myself sitting in a dimly lit pub surrounded by beer, reference books, pipe smoke and some hearty meat pie type dish. I've got it that bad. The thing is, that in a good debate, there are rules and etiquette. In fact in all of my best conversations, there has been respect on both sides and while I don't always convince my opponent/partner or become convinced by them, I do nearly always leave a) on better terms that I began and b) wiser and better able to understand them.

My experience suggests that there is no real difficulty in having an enduring, deep friendship with someone who is nearly %100 wrong about almost everything important in life (or even with Calvinists). But I find that I am somewhat unusual in that regard. Most people I run into these days don't seem to be at all comfortable with the suggestion that someone else might be wrong. This is true both within and without the Church. In both spheres, sacred and secular, there are usually two possible outcomes from this discomfort. A person who is uncomfortable with other people's potential wrongness will either 1) ignore the wrongness and do his best to pretend that everyone agrees or 2) ignore the person they think is wrong and treat them more as a category of person rather than an actual individual. To overgeneralize; people who identify as liberal (both secular and theological) tend towards the first approach while people who identify as conservative (secular and theological) tent towards the second.

And I would like to suggest that neither of these is a particularly good way to go. In fact I think that both of these approaches are based on a wrong assumption. The assumption that being wrong makes you a stupid-head; or in more adult language, that being wrong devalues a person.

In the first approach people have trouble with disagreement because to say that someone is wrong about something is to say that they are, in at least one way, less of a person. Because these people do not want to give the impression that they actually think of anyone as less than themselves they are forced to ignore any and all points of strong disagreement. I think everyone is generally familiar with this. Five people are having a conversation and someone makes some strong political statement.... conversation stops.... two people look really nervous... one of them speaks up and says something like "not everyone would want to go that far" and everyone looks at the original speaker. If he is a first approach kind of person, he backs down. "No of course, just sometimes I feel that way, but it could be anything really, I mean politics is nuts anyway right?...?" and things go back to comfortable. Nobody really disagrees with anybody else, not when they are friends.

But this is absurd. People do disagree. And that doesn't begin to affect their value as persons. In fact if we go back to an older understanding of value and recognize that each person has infinite value and that they have it simply by being a person, the whole problem disappears. We are messed up infinitely valuable people trying to figure life out. Of course we are going to disagree, often about incredibly important things. So what?

The second approach accepts the same wrong premise, that being wrong decreases the value of an individual, and therefore concludes that everyone who doesn't agree with them is a little less than they are. In the church, this manifests as spiritual pride (what C.S. Lewis called one of the ugliest of all sins); in the secular realm it's just normal pride (not a whole lot better really). And this is another group we are generally familiar with; it smacks of condescention and it tends to kill any community or relationship.
I would suggest that we need to relearn the art of disagreement. The ancient Christian saying "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, Charity" is far wiser than any approach we tend to take today. Disagree, argue, but do it in love. Do it with humility. This, at least, might serve as a starting point if we really do want to "seek the truth in love".


  1. I disagree. Well someone had to say it. Great thoughts Bill. Keep it up.

  2. this is really hitting home for me today bill. great post.

  3. Maybe you should play more WoW. There's lots of people telling other people how wrong they are in so many different levels. They have absolutely no qualms about telling someone how wrong they are. This is also true of many online forums.

    In fact, when someone asks a question online, even if I am uncertain about an answer, I have found that the fastest way to get a response is to give the WRONG answer. People will correct someone's wrong answer much faster than they are willing to simply help someone and give the right answer on their own.

    Of course, that's just raw information and not politics. But, have you been part of a political discussion online? Those are brutal, too.

    I guess, you're just talking about disagreement among friends. Hmm.. you didn't see this in the teacher's lounge at your school? I have seen some heated discussions in our teacher's lounge before. Of course, I left the room because I thought the arguments weren't just heated, but not well thought out either. When people simply shoot from the hip (from their emotions), it's just a Spartan debate (who yells loudest wins).

    My friend is part of some political discussions on Facebook, and he's found that things can get pretty ugly on there, too. In fact, things had gotten so ugly that he decided to DELETE his Facebook account.

    So, I guess, I see it from the other extreme. You see people not disagreeing, I see people disagreeing so much that they can't talk civilly to each other.

  4. But hey you know I'm always glad to disagree with you and still be your friend. :)

  5. That's a good point, and I have experienced the same thing, especially in the teacher's lounges. I probably ought to add a section talking about when people are willing to disagree with one another but accept the false premise and thereby conclude that their "opponent" is a stupid-head, is less valuable as a person. I think this tends not to happen among friends, there I would say we are usually back to my original two groups. But you are right, this post really didn't address the dynamics of disagreeing with someone we aren't that committed to maintaining a healthy relationship with.