Why We Argue Like Jerks
The other day, I found myself flipping through channels in the ninth circle of Hell, otherwise known as cable news. Two guests were debating about the latest public policy or gossip column.Pundit A let me know that Pundit B hates the truth. Pundit B told me about the secret “WAR on _____” (You haven’t heard of that war yet? Because you’re probably fighting it.) The host “moderates” the discussion by provoking one or both guests, stating something that’s phrased as a question, but I’m not too sure is an actually query (e.g. “How could a decent human being possibly support what you believe?”). Everyone’s screaming, so I turned back to Adventure Time.
Perhaps I’m being a bit maudlin, but I know, dear Reader, that you’ve experienced this disbelief in the state of public debate. Even if you aren’t a much of a TV viewer (aside: how did you find Christ and POP CULTURE?), just go on your Facebook and check out any thread with over 30 comments not involving a celebratory life event. Yep, you get it now. What’s most painful for me is when I find myself ironically cussing at the tube. Or, writing a 2,000 word essay telling someone on the internet that they are wrong. As much as I hate it, I am very much the problem that I want to solve.
It seems like peaceful, dissenting discourse proves itself more challenging by the day. A recent story in The Atlantic about Frank Luntz, a veteran political consultant, comments not only on the increasing divide between Americans, but the nature of the conversation. Luntz tells us that “[Americans] want to impose their opinions rather than express them”. The author goes on to ask if political conversation had always been controversial. The conflicted Luntz replied, “Not like this. Not like this.”
Diving headfirst into an endless vortex of insults and insinuations is incredibly tempting in the heat of the moment. I have felt the tug and I have regrettably given in many times to coarse tweets and ad hominems. Maybe considering the why behind our inability to argue well will help us move forward.
We fail to ask real questions. Remember what I said about those dastardly displays of rhetoric? You know, the ones that duct tape a question mark to an assertion? Well, those aren’t questions — they’re manipulative declarations of your own point of view. Inquiry goes out the window in favor of a verbal “status update.”
Questions are a fantastic way of bringing clarity to someone’s reasoning and basis for their opinions. They allow our dissenters to dig deeper into their beliefs—far more than they may have otherwise—clarifying ideas worthy of being contested. Most importantly, the listener has the ability to gain actual insight to life on the other side of the argument.
We do not seek to understand. Tied closely to my last point, we’d rather take the absolute worst case description of our opponent’s views, and beat those views to a lifeless pulp. It’s really easy. It’s definitely provocative. But it gives no respect toward someone’s right to defend their actual position, not the one we conveniently conjure. Neglecting to represent what someone actually believes reduces real people with stories and viewpoints to silly caricatures and talking points.
We do not like being wrong. I know, I know. The purpose of a debate is to argue for one’s position. But, be real for one moment—how many times have you sincerely been wrong in the past? If the answer is any less than one million-billion times, you are lying (1 John 1:8-9). Stop it. Conceding a tightly held belief triggers our insecurities. Insecurities release our defense mechanisms. Soon, we’re arguing our position far beyond the evidence we’ve provided. Yet we wonder why all our conversations devolve into grudge matches.
Don’t hear this as an assault on having convictions, or a jab at the notion of absolute truth — that would be a truth claim of its own! Rather, it’s an appeal to remember that we all have been desperately, hopelessly wrong at one point in our lives. If not for divine Truth saving the day (Titus 3:3-6, John 1:14-17), we would still be stuck in the same loop of stupid. Humility is always a worthy pursuit. Always.
Next time someone posts that absolutely egregious link bait on Facebook, let’s try this as an exercise: call for a cease fire with our keyboards, make a phone call (remember those?) and grab some coffee with that guy or gal that doesn’t think like us. I promise you will be one step closer to a productive and enriching discussion—where grace, truth, and understanding rules over bitter sniping and strings of exclamation points.
Indeed. In politics as well as religion, we view each other as enemies to be defeated rather than people to be heard, understood, persuaded, and at times compromised with for the common good. At The World Table (www.theworldtable.org) we have created a forum with a set of ethical guidelines that facilitates civil conversation over religion and politics which transforms enemies into trusted rivals. Worth looking into.
John, thanks for that! I was inspired greatly by the Stand to Reason Ambassador’s Creed:
Particularly grateful for their description of what it means to be FAIR:
“An Ambassador is sympathetic and understanding towards others and will acknowledge the merits of contrary views.”
Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Ever hear of the dialectic? Our news pro and con, for and against, etc., are exercises of a dialectic designed to yanks this way and that until we give up and let them (whoever they are( have it, the whole nine yards, control of the government, etc., so they can make the changes they desire. I am sure you have Trevin, having come from Rumania. Arguments, however, are the stuff of Baptist History. Take two Baptists, please. Or else you will have three opinions: the first, the other, and the truth. In any case, even with such stuff, God has been pleased to make great progress. A few years ago a historian fell upon some Episcopalian’s criticism of the Baptists back in the 1700s. Sounded terrible, and, no doubt, knowing Baptist, it probably was. However, I pointed out that during this same period, the Baptists were experiencing the First and Second Great Awakenings, supporting the emergence of the new and, soon to be, the most attractive nation on earth. They were also establishing churches all across the land, making the South a Baptist kingdom (still number one there today, but probably not for long (employing educated and uneducated preachers together, launching the Modern Missionary Movement, winning religious liberty, establishing educational institutions, objecting to slavery *though they would later and, sadly, support it, winding up in the worst war in American History until the last half of the 20th century), and all of this while arguing like a bunch of jerks, a sign of freedom. On the other hand our critic which always down played differences found a whole new nation emerging under the quietude methods.
We are prideful, self-centered idolators.
We just have to win those arguments!
glad we have a Savior. We really need one!
Here’s a relevant goal: Let’s be known as _irenic_ people.
Irenic means “promoting peace.”
Characteristics of an irenic person: kind, gentle, respectful, understanding.
What’s the value of winning a debate point if we are unkind, harsh, disrespectful, and closed-minded in the process? What kind of a testimony is that to Christ?
Thanks for the good essay.
I think one way to deal with the obnoxious discourse you’re speaking of is to call it out for what it is. If someone says, “How could a decent person believe what you just said?” answer by asking, “Do you really want to know, or are you just putting me down?” If someone says you’re intolerant because you have convictions about something, point out that if they are tolerant, they’ll tolerate people who believe what you do. If, as someone did with me this past week, they tell you that they support freedom, but will kill you and everyone like you, stop communicating.
We need to stop listening to obnoxious bigots who agree with us. We need to allow ourselves to be embarrassed by the existence of the obnoxious, insulting loud-mouths who agree with our side (whichever side that is).
In everything, we need to take the same side Jesus did, and to do it with love and firmness, as he did.
I thought about writing an ironic “hate post,” but instead decided to be sincere in affirming this article. Important thoughts for an increasingly frightening problem.
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