When We Cannot Reason Together

688px-Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle

Raphael, The School of Athens

It seems to me that in many quarters of the United States, we’ve reached a dangerous place of no longer being able to reason together when we have differences–whether the aim is simply understanding one another, or arriving at some agreement of how we will live together with our differences, or how, without achieving perfect agreement, we can arrive at measures that we can agree on and implement that make things better for all. Whether it is in dysfunctional politics or the use of obstructive tactics to shut down speakers on a campus or violent confrontations on our streets, we seem to be becoming an increasingly angry society more concerned about our own rightness and power than the pursuit of the good,the true, and the beautiful, that, when I last checked, none of us has a corner on. It makes me quite concerned for our country.

I’ve seen it on social media. The most grievous is when I see people who don’t know each other attack one another’s character because they differ. I’ve seen it on my Facebook profile where two people I count as friends, but who don’t know each other, end up attacking each other, having no idea what a fantastic person the other individual is. And why is it that whenever one voices an opinion there are those who feel it is their mission in life to jump in, argue, rebut, or simply pronounce how wrong-headed and stupid you are? How refreshing it would be if someone were to say, “you seem an intelligent person, and you see things differently than I do. Would you tell me more about why you think that way?” It just doesn’t happen, sadly. Sometimes it tempts me to limit myself to posting cute memes and pretty pictures or uncontroversial articles–although that is an increasingly narrow category–it seems we have a difficult time talking civilly online about anything.

I really wrestle with what to do. I would love to have discussions with people who want to have genuine discussions that don’t reduce to “you’re wrong, we’re right.” But I’ve pretty nearly concluded that Facebook is not the place to do it. And frankly, I don’t have the time to dialogue with those who really aren’t interested genuine dialogue, but simply feel compelled to counter any point that they disagree with. And sooner or later on any issue of substance–someone makes a pronouncement with an implied (or explicit) put down of any who differ, ending any rational conversation. Over the years, that has come from different ends of the political spectrum, depending on the issue. Sometimes conversations end with battling pronouncements. On more than one occasion, I’ve just taken the whole thread down because it became toxic. But this bothers me–is that the end the commentators were striving for–to silence anyone who disagrees?

I’ve also considered one or a combination of these option

  • Deleting conversation stopping comments–but I don’t like cutting off my friends.
  • Deleting all comments–this has the effect of saying–“I just put this out there to think about” but precludes real dialogue.
  • Blocking people–in this case I might just as well unfriend them–tough when you do value them as friends.
  • Include a request that if people simply want to make pronouncements, they should do it on their own pages–except that those who do this tend to ignore such requests.

Probably my preferred option at this point is generally to stop making those posts. I don’t think they change minds and the virtual world seems to just foster either incivility or echo chambers and I don’t want to add to it. In the future, when you hear from me on Facebook, know that it is something that cuts pretty close to the bone.

What will I do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear from others who have wrestled with this:

  • I will keep blogging and reviewing books. Know that my blogs and reviews will reflect things I care about, and are consonant with the ethos of this blog–the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
  • I will work hard in my own online behavior to listen to understand before I write to respond. I can’t change others, but I can be the change I hope to see. Whether it works or not, at least I can live with myself.
  • I will look for ways to take real action in the real world about things I care about rather than talk in the virtual world.
  • I will find people who I can have face to face conversations with who are different from me–but committed to dialogue with civility.
  • I will vote for people who have track records of reasoning together with their political opponents to serve all their constituents. I will not vote for people who foster divisiveness. Sometimes, that may mean I will not vote for any candidate for a given office.
  • I will not expect politicians to implement ideologically pure policies or utopian solutions. I will not look for them to bring in the kingdom of God. I will expect them to legislate and lead in ways that serve not merely their “base” but to reach proximately good solutions that fairly serve all their constituents–in my school district, city, county, state, or the country.
  • I will also look to the role we can play in our participation in mediating institutions-churches, volunteer organizations, neighborhood groups, and other more local groups. When we put so much stake in the political arena, we give away the power and influence that may be exercised through these groups.

Perhaps what I’m realizing, even as I write this, is that online life is a poor substitute for real citizenship. I still believe that the online world can be a great place to learn, listen, and understand, and even change our minds if we are open to it. It doesn’t encourage deliberative argument, or careful, “longform” thinking between people. I don’t think that’s what it is made for. I, for one, will be looking for other ways to reason together.

I’m not sure I like this conclusion or feel I’ve reached a landing place that I’m content with. I’d really value your help!

Watch Your $%&*@^# Language!

23860378_89e8ebd646_z

Chris James, (No Cursing??) Sign (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

Have you noticed that language is getting coarser? We were shopping yesterday in a bookstore (during National Book Day!) and I wandered over to the bestseller shelves. Two of the titles that greeted me were, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and You Are a Badass. At least the former title used an asterisk, but we all know which vowel it was replacing.

Book titles are just symptomatic of the proliferation of profanity in our media. It’s common to see either abbreviations or actual profanity on social media and to come across blog posts liberally laden with profanity. More than that, coarse words for defecation, urination, and sex lace everyday conversation. We use a word for excrement for getting our act together. We routinely use a word for urinating to describe the experience of being angered by something. The f-bomb seems to be an all around adjective as well as a favorite expression of anger. I could go on but you know what I’m talking about.

It’s not like I’ve never used these words. Particularly as a teenager hanging out with my buddies in urban Youngstown, our conversations were richly laced with profanity. For a period of my life, I thought it was kind of cool or edgy. I’d argue that it was only “dirty” because some people said it was. I’d argue that we were getting “real.”

My Christian journey started changing that. It wasn’t so much rules against certain words, as principles that spoke to the power of words in a community, and to shape the community around us. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).

I began to realize words have the power to evoke the best or worst angels of our natures, that our words build up others or undermine them. Words can hurt or heal. Actually, this extends beyond profanity to things like gossip where we feed on the meager fare of tearing someone down when they aren’t present to defend themselves. Cyber-bullying might be an example of the destructive power of our words, amplified by social media.

I won’t say that I completely refrain from these things even to this day. Catch me on a bad day struggling with the plumbing in my house, and it won’t always be pretty. If profanity occurs in a text I am quoting, I won’t delete it. I also realize that in both writing and speaking, there are times that a profanity may be the most apt word, and a euphemism or softer term doesn’t cut it. I can see a case in literature where contexts warrant profanity. The test for me is whether it fits or is gratuitous.  The restrained, but appropriate use of a profanity may actually capture attention that a profanity-laced dialogue does not.

That said, I am troubled by the increasing acceptability of profanity in our social and public discourse. I think it reflects an angrier, coarser, bleaker view of life. People might answer that this is the way they see it. Some, I’ve heard it suggested, use this as a “language of resistance” as in “since______ has been elected, everything is all f-ed up.”

I think I would answer that our words not merely reflect reality but help shape it. By words, Genesis tells us that God made the world. Our words can convince us that we live in a stinking latrine or that we are turning manure into gardens that are fertile and fruitful. Our sexual vocabulary can take one of the most beautiful experiences of human intimacy, and reduce it to a tawdry bodily function that sounds like simply another form of relieving ourselves. Or it can elevate the tender, and sometimes clumsy, coming together of two people who really care for each other into enduring love poetry.

I don’t want to argue for any form of censorship or a new prudery. The First Amendment protects even profane speech except when it is with the specific intent to incite unlawful acts. I happen to like the First Amendment, even when I disagree with the people and ideas it protects. But if you care about pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful, does this not extend to our use of language and choice of words? Should it not be of concern that the use of profanity in private conversation and increasingly in social media and public discourse is increasingly common not only in the general public, but even in faith communities? We may think we are simply describing the world or “telling it like it is” as we used to say. Do we stop and think that we are not merely evoking memories or a sense of things as they were and arebut also invoking a view of reality as it is and could be? What do our word choices reveal about the vision of reality toward which we are living? As a Christ-follower, how do I speak if I believe I have been called into a beloved community and into a life of infinite wonder and purpose and hope?

It’s not so much that I’m against “bad” words. I think I’ve already suggested that all words, even these have a usage or purpose in some contexts. Rather, I constantly find myself wanting for better words, for clearer thinking, for higher aspirations, to set goals for nobler actions, and graceful expression in spoken and written words. Am I out of touch with reality to want that and pursue it? Must I settle for a coarse world when we have so many hints of a world of goodness, truth and beauty? What do you think?

Two Qualities for Public Conversations

License: Creative Commons Uploaded by: Wikiphoto

Let’s face it, many public conversations are about as pleasant as the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. Often they are less real conversation than serial monologues where each person makes talking points and attempts to score rhetorical points against the other. Very few represent a serious attempt to hear one another that affirms what we hold in common, carefully makes distinctions where we differ, and argues both thoughtfully and graciously for those distinctions without personal animus. I would suggest that there are two essential qualities, or two “C’s” for good public conversations.

Perhaps before I discuss those “C’s” I should try to articulate what I mean about what is a “public conversation.” I see a public conversation as one that occurs in a public forum, whether that be a political debate, or a town hall meeting, or a university seminar, or a presentation in a community room at one’s local public library. It is a conversation about some public and social good, about what will benefit the flourishing of human beings and the social and physical environment in which they live. And it is inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the public attending. No one group controls or presumes to control the conversation.

I am indebted to an article titled “Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars” by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher at Yale for the two “C’s. In answer to the question of how a Christian scholar might speak with a Christian voice into the public conversations at a university he writes:

“Well, for one thing, the Christian voice will be a voice of charity; it will honor all human beings, as Peter puts it in his letter in the New Testament. It will never be abusive. But there is also a more subtle matter to be raised here. The voice with which one speaks must be a voice such that one can be heard – a voice such that one genuinely participates in the dialogue of the discipline. Every now and then, when teaching at Yale, I would have a student who did not know how to speak in the voice appropriate to philosophy; invariably this was an evangelical. Evangelicals often interpret the response they get as hostility to evangelicalism, or hostility to Christianity. Sometimes it is that; but not always. Sometimes it is just that the person has not learned to speak in the appropriate voice.”

The first of the two “C’s” is one he mentions by name. It is charity. No public conversation will be constructive if it tears down people. No conversation will be constructive if it assumes the worst in others. No public conversation will be constructive if begins without good will toward others and the effort to find common ground in our humanity and in at least being willing to give a fair hearing to the ideas of the other. I find it helpful to assume that another has been at least as thoughtful if not more than I about the matter we are discussing. All this is charity.

The other “C” summarizes the idea of a “voice that can be heard.” The idea here is cogency, “the quality of being clear, logical, and convincing; lucidity.” It means speaking with a voice that is knowledgeable. It is a voice that speaks in terms that are shared and may be grasped by the listening public and the others in the conversation. It means a voice that makes its case with thoughtful argument and not simply provocative soundbites. If charity takes the dignity of others seriously, cogency takes the minds and thoughts of others seriously.

It seems to me that it is these two qualities, practiced together, that produce a third quality, a third “C” that is so wanting in much of our discourse, that of civility. I wonder if one of the criteria we ought to apply in considering candidates for any high office is whether they practice the qualities of charity and cogency resulting in civil public conversations. It seems to me that if they do not meet this criteria (and I think there are those who do not), then they should not be considered fit candidates. Civic leadership at any level should rest on the quality to engage with civility with the civitas, the whole body of citizens one aspires to serve and lead.

Equally, in the academic world, which is often known for its vicious politics, it seems that the qualities of charity and cogency also apply. Universities needn’t be places where people agree. In fact, it is the disagreements that make them interesting places! The rigorous clash of ideas sharpens thinking but it needn’t make enemies. And for those to whom Wolterstorff speaks, Christians, his challenge is one of choosing charity and the hard work of cogency, over pat answers and put downs.

I have no illusions that a magic wand can be waved as in a Disney movie that makes everything sweetness and light. But if enough of us practice these qualities in whatever public forum we engage, and prefer those for leadership who approximate to these virtues, we might at least give others the whiff of something better.

But will they follow their noses?

Finding the Right Word

Every one of us who tries their hand at writing grapples with this. It is the struggle to express with the right word or set of words those thoughts rattling around in your head. Often, it is the frustrating difference between the “right” word and the “almost right” word.

Why does this matter? That was a question that came up in a discussion this morning of a thirty-year old book that included an extended discourse on the use of two different English words to translate a Greek term. In particular, a number of us who have been around a while remembered when this discussion was vigorously contested but now rarely comes up. Is it just because the topic is passe’? Or is it because we are less interested in discussions that involve careful distinctions around the meaning of words? Have we become more inclined to take a “whatever” approach to distinctions in words and ideas where people might differ?

Word Cloud of this Post

Word Cloud of this Post

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this. I read examples of both lucid writing and poorly constructed sentences and statements every day. Is there more of this than in the past? When one reads journals and letters from the past, I’m not sure. There were plenty of misspellings and grammatical errors and imprecisions of thought in the past.

What I do know is that clarity of expression matters. Have you ever been in a meeting where participants are going around and around about a course of action, and suddenly someone who has been listening carefully speaks up and says, “is this what we are saying should be done?” and proceeds to crystallize the ideas floating around the room or conference call? I’ve often found this makes all the difference between muddle and meaning in a group.

Perhaps this matters now more than ever with our capacity to easily disseminate various forms of verbiage both within our organizations but also around the world (this blog being one example of this!). I wonder whether the ease and rapidity with which we can communicate via tweets, texts, emails or even blogs can erode the clarity of thought and expression that came when you drafted a letter, revised and proofed it, and then typed and sent it out via the postal service.

What is more troubling to me is to witness the deterioration of the public use of words where diatribes and ad hominem attacks substitute for a reasoned argument that marshals evidence to persuade a listener. I am also troubled when I read writing that is jargon-laden, where it appears that the effort is to conceal meaning from those who don’t have the code to the jargon. I find this equally among theologians and academics in other fields of higher education. Often, these scholars are writing about matters that are not merely of scholarly concern. They concern what we will believe, how we will educate our children, how we will pursue medical care, and what public policies our civic and political leaders should pursue.

Perhaps why this matters most to me is that I believe reality is “word-shaped”. My worldview is one that believes that the material universe was spoken into existence, whatever other material causes and effects that set in motion. Our use of language mirrors that of the Maker–our words also have the power to bring things into existence, for good or ill. Similarly, I believe the moral framework of life isn’t something we simply socially constructed but was similarly articulated in formulations like the Ten Commandments. It is not coincidental, I think, that one of the names given “God in human flesh” was logos or Word. It seems that God did not want to leave us to muddle about in our search for meaning.

You might not agree with me in these matters. Many don’t! But I hope we might agree on the power of words. Words can hide the truth. Words can hurt. Words can muddle. Words can inflame. And words can be a vehicle for the thoughtful pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.