The Argument for Arguing

Standard

I try to look at issues from a little different perspective. When people dig in on whether “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter” I want to say, “Wait! What do you mean by ‘A life matters?'” We take for granted that we’re using common terms and definitions. Usually, we aren’t.

I’m reconsidering the value of arguing. I’ve had some really good discussions about it. My views are changing. Here’s what I’ve got right now.

First, I always want to begin with grace. We can disagree with people and still show kindness and even grace. I can disagree with you and not make you my enemy. We can disagree and still be friends. This doesn’t always happen, but it can.

The argument against arguing is “No one ever changes their minds, it only leads to hostility, and therefore you’re wasting your time.” Somewhere implied within that is “…and those people are bad word jerks and you can’t reason with them.”

I have felt this, strongly. I won’t tell you that everyone has good intentions but is simply misunderstood and if we all had patience and used our inside voices we’d have a group hug and share s’mores and put all our differences behind us. That’s bull. Some people aim to hurt you. Some even feel entitled to do so because [insert rationalization here] or they honestly don’t care how you feel because what they’re saying/doing is more important than your feelings. Or the relationship. Or you. You can refuse to be someone’s enemy but you can’t force them not to treat you as one.

Jesus followers seek to value every person, however obnoxious or antagonistic or evil. Why? We believe God loves literally everyone and every single person, no matter how obnoxious, antagonistic, or evil, carries the image of God and the spark of God’s light. On my best days, I believe that.

That does not mean we endure any and all abuse from others. Sometimes Jesus calls us to suffer for others and sometimes Jesus calls us to suffer others because they need love even though they are damaged and hurt us. The view that we only surround ourselves with those who like, affirm, and agree with us and the view that we have to endure and absorb every abuse to “suffer for Christ” are both counter to Jesus’ call for us. I would call them both partial truths that become very unhealthy if we make them absolute truths. Loving our enemies doesn’t automatically require taking whatever hurt people throw at us. When they are sinning by hurting us, simply permitting that helps neither them nor us. “Boundaries” is not a word found in the Bible, per se, but healthy boundaries are inherent in biblical love for ourselves and others.

We do need to surround ourselves with people who will love, affirm, and challenge us. Speak truth to us. Show us grace. Tell us how beautiful we are because they can see God in us when we can’t. If we don’t have enough support, if we don’t participate in some form of community, we cut ourselves off from a central stream of God’s love.* If you don’t have strong support, I’d say address that before you figure out arguing, priority-wise.

When I’m talking about “arguing,” I mean disagreeing strongly with someone who does not and likely will not agree with us. I don’t mean “discuss” or “dialogue” or “converse.” I mean argue.

My first impulse has been to say “don’t.” If you know you’re never going to agree, and we also suspect no one changes their mind, what is to be gained?

But we live in a strange age. We live in a world that is connected (and disconnected) on social media platforms and in which many of our fellow citizens–and many of our friends–receive their news and form their opinions through what they see on social media. The recent scourge of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19, which quickly picked up massive momentum in spite of the obvious facts to debunk them (if a video trending on Twitter is found to have 80% of it’s viral circulation coming from troll farms and Russian bot accounts, that’s a giveaway), serve as a perfect example. People whom I know, love, and respect wrote to ask me, “How do you know this isn’t true?” Honestly, that’s a good, open-minded question and also indicates how crucial is our responsibility to fact-check and investigate.

We no longer live in a world in which we can simply roll our eyes at a video of a few people standing in white lab coats, even when it turns out not all of them are even doctors, even when it turns out none of them are emergency room or ICU physicians, even when it turns out that though they call themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors,” none of them are working on the front line with COVID-19 patients (as, say, an ICU nurse friend of mine is) and their organization was formed less than a week before they made their conspiracy theory video. Also, note their homepage no longer exists.

Why? Why do people want to believe these voices over those with vastly more experience, expertise, and legitimate credentials? Well, that’s certainly a blog post or book of its own. We’re fearful in the time of our pandemic. We want to believe that it isn’t as bad as we’re hearing, that the cure is coming soon or already here (but maybe being hidden or suppressed). We’ve been duped enough by government allowing big business and false science to inform us.* Once burned, twice shy.

Our reality is more complex than we’d like it to be. We want simple answers and we want them now. We’re freaked out that science is a trial and error process even when lives are on the line, even when our children’s lives are on the line.

We’ve also devolved into a society that has chosen sides for everything, including who will inform our reality. Fake News. How loaded is that term now? It’s become shorthand for “I must distrust everything this source reports.” What’s worse, both major parties have also promoted identity politics, i.e. one’s political views are not a collection of positions taken from across the spectrum to align with one’s beliefs and values, but “I am my party because that other party wants to destroy the USA!” Identity politics is perhaps the single-worst hindrance to reasoning and drawing conclusions based on facts for those who have the capacity to do so. (I acknowledge this as a danger for myself, as well, and one that I must guard against.) Going back to our example of COVID-19 conspiracies, if the “other side” is trying to debunk a conspiracy theory, that makes some of us that much more inclined to believe it–not based on facts or scientific research or proof, but because everyone knows “they” are bad and liars, regardless of what debunking evidence they produce.

I have to conclude we simply do not have the luxury of ignoring “ridiculous ideas.” If by “arguing” we meant solely “two people facing off, each trying to prove a point while refusing to hear or consider the other’s perspective,” I’d rush to tell you “Yeah, don’t. Please avoid that argument, save your time and energy, and don’t further damage the relationship if there’s anything to be spared.”

In my discussions with trusted friends regarding arguing, we noted several competing values to consider. Engaging in argument with someone who will never listen, much less change their mind, is frustrating and exhausting. If you’re (lucky) like me and take every criticism, insult, and slight to heart, you can end up fixating on it for days. On the other hand, people are paying attention. A surprisingly large number of people have told me, “Thank you for what you say. Thank you for speaking up.” Some of them do not feel the liberty to speak up themselves and some say they get so much backlash for what they say that it isn’t worth it.

These represent the silent readers, who know better than to respond directly and get caught in the crossfire, but who are still trying to make sense of everything that is going on or make sense of a particular issue. They don’t wave their hands or give away their stealth positions very often, but they’re there. If everyone rolls their eyes at the preposterous conspiracy theories but no one bothers to rebut them “aloud,” then these claims go uncountered.

Say this happens with the tobacco industry. Obviously we can tell that cigarettes are causing cancer but they’re still denying it, still spending billions to convince people it’s a lie or make the scientific findings seem hazy (often people don’t need to be convinced, they just need an excuse not to be believe what would be inconvenient). But if the only voices people hear are the denials of truth–and believe me, Big Tobacco paid a lot to make that denial loud–then it’s much easier for people to get (and stay) fooled. Then, perhaps, we’re complicit in their getting fooled.

As with so many things I discuss, I can’t give you a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Reality check: I can chase my tail all day on this stuff. I confess to having done so before. Turns out I gain little whether or not I catch my tail and I can’t get that day back.

xkcd: Duty Calls

I have a very close friend, Geordie, who has changed his position entirely in the past five years (not my doing). He reminded me just a couple days ago that dialogue and well-reasoned confrontation in love can and do have an impact, as he himself is living proof.

I also had a weeks-long, exhaustive discussion with this guy about Trump and got nowhere. When he disagreed he would obfuscate or demand my proof and then, when I provided it, ignore it and go on to the next objection. He claimed not to like Trump, at least “not the way he talks,” but ultimately preferred to vote for him again unless the Democrats ran a candidate with all Republican positions. I learned a lot from that discussion, one of the biggest takeaways being it simply wasn’t worth my time. I don’t regret entering into the discussion, and, knowing me and my optimism, I would probably do it again. But I shouldn’t. Or, when the signs become obvious and inescapable, I should accept them sooner and move on.

I want to add that I still believe in give and take. I know I’m not right about everything. I won’t change my mind about Trump–he’s done too much damage to our country and hurt too many people for anything he does now to turn that around, and I simply don’t think it’s a good idea to have a full-blown narcissist leading the country–though I do pray for his redemption most every day. But I still appreciate when people can challenge my thinking respectfully (or at least civilly) and help me to broaden my understanding. I want to learn and grow.

So here are my conclusions. As always, feel free to ask questions, add your thoughts, or simply let me know how wrong I really am. 😉

  • Grace first. Treat others kindly. Name-calling is still wrong. At all times I want to remember that God loves and seeks the persons with whom I disagree.
  • If by “argue” we mean keep disagreeing in private when clearly neither person has any notion of changing and were doing more damage than good, don’t.
  • Don’t let someone abuse or gaslight you. You get to decide when it’s abuse or gaslighting.
  • Consider whether you have surrounded yourself with people who attack your every word or with people who agree with every single thing you say. Find enough support that you can sustain speaking up. Remember that we all need community and strong, healthy community can bear disagreement.
  • Choose your battles carefully. Choose your battles carefully. AND choose your battles carefully.
Pick your battles quote refrigerator magnet | Etsy
  • Balance your responses between speaking up for the truth and chasing your tail. Balance your investment between remembering that someone is listening who needs your encouragement and someone can’t wait to tell you how wrong you are.
  • Balance your choice to respond between your inner conviction to stand for justice and your need for sanity. Don’t get sucked in to interminable arguments. Say what you need to say. Say it respectfully. You don’t have to get the last word. God is faithful.
  • You have no idea how much your support, your voice, your courage to contradict falsehoods (or racism or hate speech or gaslighting or privilege) might mean to someone else. They might tell you. They might not. But I’m telling you. Your voice matters. Your courage matters. Your decency and kindness matter.

Finally, I try to say it here. Almost invariably I can express thoughts better on my blog than in a few sentences where everyone jumps in with their own take/perception/projection. Likely fewer people read these words (there are so many of them!) but I’m okay with that. I always appreciate when anyone shares my posts to give a few more people the chance to see them. Every time I write one of these, I pray that the people who need it will see it. God’s pretty faithful about that, too.

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. II Timothy 2:14

but also

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
    for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 3:8-9

I leave you with this: just as I’d rather be excluded for whom I include than included for whom I exclude, I’d rather be attacked for speaking up against injustice than have peace by leaving those experiencing injustice to feel alone. Every time.

*Community is also a place we can get horribly wounded and abused. I wish that weren’t so, but the gathered sinners do sin.

**Did you know smoking cigarettes was not harmful to your health up until 1999 or 2006? I’m being facetious, of course. Big Tobacco lied to and deceived the U.S. and worldwide public for how many years, with hired scientists to back their falsehoods?

8 thoughts on “The Argument for Arguing

  1. With you 100% on all of this. I’ve seen secondhand how ugly some of these arguments can get on social media. There have been a handful of times in the last couple of months where my wife has posted things or responded to others’ posts. My wife is always respectful and tries to find common ground between those who disagree. The result has often been that she is called names, accused of not caring about certain issues or people, or outright told she’s not a believer or follower of Christ. I totally agree that we should say what we believe, support and love those around us, and not worry about “winning” the argument or having the last word. Regarding conspiracy theories, have you seen John Oliver’s recent video addressing them? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b_eHBZLM6U
    Warning – there are some four-letter words in there, but I do so love his energy and (despite the often heavy sarcasm) his genuine desire to help people think rationally.

    • Man, I really like having you as a subscriber! 😉

      I’ve tried to support Susan in speaking up and have seen the hostility expressed against her. I’m continually baffled by these behaviors, honestly. I get angry, too, but I am trying hard to practice the fruit of the spirit in all these disagreements. She is exactly as you describe, and often more patient and gentle than I could be. Somehow, people feel permission to “speak” abusively, as if telling her she’s wrong gives permission not to be kind, loving, gentle, etc I don’t get it. But I’m certain there are people who need to see what she says and feel supported by her.

      Thanks for the John Oliver link! I think he’s brilliant. He makes such clear, concise points that cut through and reveal horrible reasoning.

  2. Steve Murdock

    Great post for those of us trying to share truth and educate others on the reality of conspiracy theories, misinformation and racism in these tense days online. Needed the boost to carry on!

  3. Teresa Musselman

    Your posts usually touch a nerve with me. I feel like you have a secret passageway to my thinking and you’re trying to help me search out the truth.. Thanks for “getting” me. My grown kids pretty much want me to cease to respond to provocation on social media, and I try, I really do, and I’m becoming better at it. But sometimes I just have to speak up and provide sources to debunk their craziness (yes, I’m talking about you, Cousin Lynne). I am trying to do so with grace. In fact, I just changed my closing signature from “Sent from my iPad” to your quote from Proverbs. .

    PS We were “between churches” when the pandemic hit, so there went our chance to discover the right place for us. (I’ll admit I have taken advantage of the opportunity and done some stealth searching by watching online services.) I just want you to know how much your posts mean to me, in light of not hearing a weekly sermon or homily to guide me.

    • Teresa, your comment helps me keep writing. Thank you. It’s encouraging that many of us wrestle through these things the same way. I’m glad I can help us put it into words. I’m also making s-l-o-w progress at approaching social media in a more sane and balanced way. Not steady slow, either. More like 3 steps forward, 2.5 steps back.
      I’m truly encouraged to hear that these help fill the space for church. This has been a crazy time. I feel more disconnected from community than I ever have since I started following Jesus. I do have a bunch of sermons on here, as well. They usually don’t get as much attention as the posts, but I’d love for them to be a small help during the storm. Jesus bless you and your family!

  4. Rhonda L Sizemore

    One thing I always appreciate about your posts is that you admit that thinking, drawing conclusions and acting on them is a process and most often an imperfect one. No, “I think it, or feel it, therefore it must be true” for you. You are willing to confront our shortcomings and plow on to good conclusions, whether it is comfortable or not. Few folks have that gift these days. Thanks for your work.

    • Thanks, Rhonda! That’s so good to hear. I’m very much a feelings-oriented person (ENFP on the Meyers-Briggs), but fortunately I was raised by smart school-teacher parents and have had a number of tremendous teachers and mentors. And the process is almost never comfortable for me; I’m just very generous to share that discomfort. 🙂
      Thanks for reading and responding, Rhonda! It encourages me more than you know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *