When I was a wrestler, we were required to shake hands with our opponents before and after every match.
I’m praying for a hearty remnant who wholeheartedly believes that we can passionately disagree and still shake hands.
One of the most valuable aspects of my graduate education was to have a front row seat to irenic debate. I’ve seen countless examples of passionate experts who viscerally disagree–but have too much respect for truth and persons to stoop to deploy intentionally unkind or manipulative tactics.
I try to model this in the classes I teach as we engage differing points of view.
In seminary, I took a class entitled “Readings in Jonathan Edwards.” This was an upper-level history elective where we read about a thousand pages of Edwards over the course of the semester. The classes, then, were discussions, but primarily commentary from Dr. Hannah helping us wade through writing that was very challenging to understand. But besides commenting on the ideas–Hannah would often comment on Edwards’s methodology–to take an opponent’s argument, and actively improve it before the critique.
I learned an important lesson.
Until you can persuasively argue the other side–you probably: (1) haven’t listened long enough; (2) don’t fully understand; or (3) haven’t adequately explored the ramifications (including the hopes, fears, and loyalties) of the position. Once you have presented the other side so well that your opponent is nodding in agreement; Once you can sincerely ask, “Have I fairly represented your position?” and have them nodding in agreement without needing further clarification–Now you’re ready to begin your respectful rebuttal.
Of course, for this to go well, your opponent also needs to be committed to: (1) fair play; (2) respect for the dignity of the other person; and (3) a greater love of truth than hatred of being wrong.
Sadly, these folks are increasingly rare in the public square–hence the almost inevitable downward spiral toward nasty tactics and ugly public discourse. This is exacerbated by social media–animated by a business model that continues to disproportionately reward and amplify the worst offenders (if you want documentation to support this claim, read this).
In order to get better models of civil discourse, we have to be better models. We have to be the kind of people who refuse to join the mob chanting “Fight, Fight, Fight!” in a big circle on the playground while the ruffians break all the rules. We have to subscribe to the best voices who are modeling civility. And when we begin typing, we have to remember the Kindness Lessons we all learned in Kindergarten, but tend to forget behind the false shields of our screens.