Call me old fashioned, but I am an unapologetic believer in the etiquette of discourse. The internet has turned into a barbarian hinterland of uncivilized dialogue, and I pride myself on being a member of the last vanguard who stand for polite conversation.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should all don our monocles and sip tea and never get to the heart of things. I only mean that we should get to the heart of things well. I believe that righteous anger burns most fiercely and cuts most ferociously when it is expressed effectively. When we are careless; when we fling mud and bludgeon people without provocation; when we do not know how to talk, and when we respond with all emotion and no reason, we waste our energy and create only noise. The raw emotions that motivate us – sadness, anger, joy, disgust, fear – are good and important, and need to be expressed. When we fail to express them effectively, however, they lose their edge, and their capacity for inciting transformation. We fail ourselves and our cause.
Not only is healthy dialogue important for effective communication and transformation, it is also vital to maintaining a peaceful and stable world. That may sound like an idealistic stretch, but I believe that expressing ourselves well and, when needed, disagreeing well creates a better world. As Michael Coren writes in his book Epiphany, “I have come to learn more than ever that respectful disagreement is a fundamental weapon against fundamentalist intolerance.”
For those interested, here are a few rules that I have instituted for myself when I engage with people who disagree with me.
1. People are innocent until proven guilty.
My assumption going into any conversarion, no matter the disagreement we may have, is that they have reasons for believing what they believe, and that I owe them the courtesy to hear them out. In other words, I believe that someone else’s intellectual integrity should be assumed and not proven. Certainly, there are many intellectually dishonest people out there, but intellectual dishonesty should be proven on a case by case basis, and not assumed on the basis of someone’s beliefs or positions. If there is intellectual guilt, let it be proven guilt: let the person in question demonstrate their lack of integrity on their own.
I see a suspicion of each other’s intellectual integrity everywhere, online and offline: people who disagree with me are just stupid. People who disagree with me are just obscuring the facts. People who disagree with me are just blinded by a secondary, and usually impure, motivation that distorts their perception of the truth. I was on the receiving end of that last one quite a bit when I came out of the closet: I’m just trying to find loopholes to sin, they said, or I was just looking for excuses to have sex with men (which clearly I couldn’t live without.) For many Christians, my search for better explanations about my sexuality was obviously a ploy to gain some unholy and carnal pleasure, and therefore, to them, all intellectual conversation was tainted and invalidated from the get go.
Assuming innocence and integrity does several important things in a conversation: it makes me more likely to see where I might, in fact, be wrong, and need to amend or change my views. It also helps everyone lower their javalins, and makes reasonable – and therefore productive – conversation more likely.
2. Let people be who they are.
I have no control over other people, and the most healthy and productive thing I can do is let them be who they are. If they need to be trolls, assholes, or curmudgeons, I can let them be who they are and not take them personally. In fact, if someone posts something particularly nasty on social media or the blog, I find it most helpful to not respond and not delete it. They did, after all, just post their nonsense in front of thousands of people, and I see that act of unselfconscious idiocy in front of a crowd punishment enough without my involvement. Usually, people aren’t really responding to me – they are responding to their own visions, and to a delusional characature of who I am. If someone is ugly or mean spirited, I can give them the space and respect to say what they need to say and be who they feel they need to be, and not take who they are as a statement about who I am.
This also extends beyond trollish behavior – I have no control over what reasonable people believe or do either, and it is no use taking any of it personally. If someone disagrees with me, that is ok – it is not the end of the world, and I can go on enjoying life without being codependantly pulled to obsess over someone else. Life is too short for that. I may believe strongly in what I say, and defend it to the bitter end – I may believe that others are not only wrong but that their wrongness is destroying other innoncent people, the planet, and the Christian faith – but I must also relinquish my control over them. I have no jurisdiction over other minds, and must respect their autonomy. It is when I respect the personhood of others as an alien, mysterious place where I have no power that the most productive conversations take place.
3. Don’t Tone-Police.
There’s a lot out there that makes all of us defensive, angry, upset, or uncomfortable, and it’s easy for all of us to say, “watch your tone. Be less angry, be less hurt, be less hysterical. Just take a deep breath, a step back, and stop making me so uncomfortable.” Whether we realize it or not, this is a damaging form of silencing and marginalization. Whenever a person is angry or bitter or hurt, and are venting their rage, the correct response is to listen. I must not tell them how they need to rephrase their words, or how they need to stop turning so many people off, and (perhaps most seductive of all), I must not use the guidelines in this post as an excuse to silence hurting, angry, or marginalized people. These are personal rules for our own journeys and individual voices, but they are not rules to police, silence, or control (see Rule #2) those who make us uncomfortable. When you encounter someone who is very hurt, angry, or marginalized, put your own thoughts and feelings to the side – you will have emotions to process, but process them later – and receive all the agony, fury, and anger that the person is expression. Hold it as kindly and lovingly as you would your own child. Do not be quick to offer solutions and easy fixes and silver linings, for that is another form of condescension – just sit with them in silence, and build a bond of empathy. This human being before you – a hurting, rightfully angry human being – is made in the eternal image of God, and their pain reflects the heart of God himself.
The only time I find it appropriate to tone-police is when someone is being abusive towards others – when someone is expressing racist, sexist, homophobic or generally hurtful things about other people. It that case, it is a matter of integrity to stand up to them.
4. When you are wrong, promptly admit it.
There is no greater test of character than admitting you are wrong. As human beings, we hate it. I hate it, you hate, but it is necessary for dialogue, and for mature existence on our earth. It takes time – it takes years – but dedicate yourself to learning how to admit when you are wrong. Yes, it will burn like fire, but do it anyway. Some fire is there to refine us into better human beings.
5. Detach when you need to.
Living with other human beings is hard – impossibly so – and sometimes, engaging in conversation with a cool head and keeping integrity intact is simply impossible. Sometimes our emotions run away from us, sometimes it hurts too much, sometimes we just can’t harness our anger, or outrage, or passion to incite transformation most effectively.
So learn to practice detachment when you need to. Learn to discern which battles are worth fighting, and when it is time to retreat. This is not just for the sake of the conversation, but also for your sake – we are all so quick to forget to take care of ourselves, to institute proper boundaries, that we find ourselves trapped in a codependant and hurtful vortex that breaks down the quality of our lives. This is not to say that our cause is unimportant, but that we defend our cause most effectively when we are healthy. We can’t be strong and noble all the time – that’s impossible. So we must learn, over a lifetime, the art of mindfulness – of knowing when we need to engage and when we need to detach. We won’t do it perfectly, but the more we practice it, the better we get.
These rules help to keep me san as someone who lives in the tumultuous crossroads of faith and sexuality. These are skills learned on the battlefield, and I continue to use them everday. I hope they are also helpful to you in your own pursuit of truth.