A Guide to Disagreeing with Dignity
There are always going to be some things that we’re not going to be able to agree upon. Ever! And that makes the skill of disagreeing with dignity, a very important skill indeed. Otherwise it’d be bedlam. In fact, it already is! Question: At what point did we forget how to disagree with dignity? It seems to me that somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten that one of the most important tenets of democracy, is the right for someone not only to hold an opinion, but to express it freely, no matter how disagreeable it may be. Of course there are limits at law. Libel and slander are wrong. Inciting violence or hatred are wrong. But those things aside, why is it that we want to silence minority views, as though somehow the majority is always right (which history quite clearly proves, it is not).
Here are Some Examples
As a Christian, I hold some incredibly unpopular views. Not because I’m an idiot. Not because I’m a narrow-minded bigot. Not because I’m homophobic or misogynistic or any other label that some would care to throw at me. Not even because I am against a woman’s choice, but because with all my heart, I feel that someone needs to stand up for the voiceless, unborn child in the abortion debate. And that’s the key. These unpopular, marginalised views that I hold (views that, by the way, were, until relatively recently, mainstream) are views that I hold with deep conviction, and with all of my heart. Until the day I breathe my final breath, I will hold dear in my heart the right of the unborn child to be given the chance that you and were given, to live his or her life. Why? Because I’m a Christian and because I believe that the Bible is, in the most part, meant to be taken literally. You might think that I’m a blithering idiot for thinking that. You might not understand how I can possibly believe that, or how I account for some of the things in the Old Testament that quite clearly do not and cannot apply to our lives today. And whilst I would be happy to explain those things to you, bottom line is, that that’s your right. But it’s not your right to silence me, any more than it is my right, to silence you. Because at the other end of the social spectrum from me, there are people who, with all their hearts, believe in same-sex marriage as a matter of equality, believe in a woman’s right to choose, believe in … a whole bunch of things that I will never, ever, ever believe in. Not as long as I live. Do they believe those things because they’re idiots? Because they’re really, really bad people? Because they’re … No, they believe those things sincerely, with all their hearts. And that … that is why we need to learn to disagree with dignity.
A Case Study – QANTAS vs Margaret Court
If you’re an Aussie, you’ll know all about this stoush. But there are many who read this blog from across the world, so here it is in a nutshell. Margaret Court is the greatest tennis player in all history. She’s won more grand slams (singles + doubles) than any other person who has ever walked the planet. Recently the CEO of QANTAS decided to paint a number of its planes in rainbow colours, to promote the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney, together with same-sex marriage. The CEO of QANTAS, Alan Joyce, is gay. So Margaret Court, now a pastor of a large church in Perth, announced that she would stop flying QANTAS as her response to his decision. Is she entitled? Sure she is. It’s a democracy. Is QANTAS entitled to paint its planes whatever colour it wants? Sure. It’s a private company and if it considers it to be in the interests of its shareholders, hey, they can paint their planes pink with purple spots if they want. Right? since her announcement, the vitriol that has been hurled at Margaret Court is beyond belief. But … it’s by no means a one-sided deal. Joyce had a pie thrown in his face by a protester. You can read about it here. What to one person is sin plain and simple (I use that word “sin” deliberately, because that’s what it is to God, to Margaret Court, to me, and to the vast majority of others who have a relationship with Jesus Christ) is, to the next person, “marriage equality”. And emotions on this one issue, by way of example, run very high indeed. The purpose of this blog, by the way, is not to promote one view over the other, but rather to put under the microscope the way we’re handling it.
In a democracy, politicians disagree with one another all the time. It’s their job. That’s how democracies function – with a government and an opposition to put the contrary view, and to hold the government accountable. You can argue about how well that works, but as Churchill is alleged to have put it: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. But from where I sit, democracies are fracturing and descending into a state of all out social war, because of the blindness induced by tribalism. What do I mean by that? It seems that we are less and less interested in achieving the best outcome for society, and more and more interested in making sure that our team wins. The present-day situation over Donald Trump is a case in point. History clearly demonstrates that he is a bully, a liar and a womaniser. You can’t deny that, and yet the religious right (in large part) thinks of him as a political messiah. Does President Trump have the potential to do some good things? Sure he does. He’s no idiot. And many are enamoured of his policies. I for one, were I an American, would absolutely support his stance on sexuality and on abortion. But, is he perfect? Clearly not. The man is complex beast, with significant strengths and significant weaknesses. Now, flip over to the left side of politics, and for them, he is nothing short of the anti-christ (if the left believed in such a thing). Nothing that he does can possibly be right. He needs to be impeached and gotten rid of … despite the fact that he was elected in an open, democratic process. Should he be given a fair go? Absolutely not!! according to the left. Do you see what’s going on here? It’s blind tribalism.
I want my side to win at all costs, irrespective of the facts.
Instead of comprehending and dealing with the nuance and complexity of Trump as President, both sides of politics (Christian and non-christian, left and right, conservative and liberal … however you want to characterise the spectrum of beliefs and ideologies) are determined to win, no matter what the truth around a particular issue may be; no matter what may be best for the people, for the nation, for the poor, for the marginalised, for the economy, for the … Oh, and please don’t think I’m just picking on the Americans. Go to the United Kingdom (ain’t that proving to be an oxymoron!) – for and agin Brexit. Come to Australia, where in recent history, we’ve had five prime ministers in six years. It’s happening right across the globe. So let me ask you this: how well do you think this blind tribalism is serving our democracies? Does it look to be a sensible path to pursue, or do we need to rethink what democracy is all about?
Disagreement Need Not Be Vitriolic
Now throw into this mix political correctness, and you have a breeding ground for vitriol and injury. I’m offended, I’m hurt, I’m devastated that you think that of my choices. How dare you tell me that I’m wrong?! So out of this combination of genuine and mock offence, political correctness is born. Should we go out of our way to offend people? No, of course not. But offence, I’m sorry, is in the eye of the beholder. (I know that many people will disagree with my take on the social implications of following Jesus, but I can guarantee you, I’m not offended … because I choose not to be.) Anyhow, through blind tribalism, people being offended and political correctness (which is, incidentally, a tool for silencing someone from expressing their views) the trenches get deeper, the grenades being hurled to and fro get bigger, and so societies and communities disintegrate. At what point did everyone get so touchy, hmm?! Why can’t we just agree to disagree? In fact, let me put it another way. How can we learn, once more, to agree to disagree; to respect those who oppose us rather than taking offense? Well, call me crazy, but here are a few – just a few mind you – ideas:
1. Seek first to understand and then be understood
That’s a principle straight out of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I live in the gay district of Sydney. Many of the people I deal with, day to day, are gay. In fact, one or two gay people are very close and dear to me. I would defy you to find one such person, to whom I have ever been rude, dismissive, or belittling. One gay person whom I have ever treated badly because they are gay. And that’s not because I’m such a good guy. It’s because it has never made sense to me to be horrid toward people with whom I disagree. With all my heart I believe that they hold their beliefs genuinely. I try to put myself in their shoes. If I didn’t believe in God, if I didn’t have a biblical worldview, I could see myself coming to the same conclusions that they have. It seems to me, that a fundamental prerequisite to the repair of western democracy, is Covey’s principle of seeking first to understand. Or, as Jesus put it a couple of thousand years earlier, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Respect. Simple respect from both sides of an issue. Is that really too much to ask?
2. Accepting the right of someone to hold and express an alternate view
As I said earlier, the moment we silence someone because we don’t agree with them, we have given up our democracy. The moment you tell me that I can’t, albeit with dignity and respect, speak up for the things in which I believe, that I can’t argue the case for them and against the things in which I don’t believe, you have released a cancer into our society that will drain the life out of democracy. Here’s what I think democracy is all about: the free and open expression of beliefs, views and opinions and then, decisions taken by the majority, whether that be in electing a government, voting for or agin a referendum or however else the democratic process works out her decisions. Democratic process thrives on the free and open expression of views. And … here’s the kicker … everybody’s entitled. QANTAS is entitled to paint their jets in whatever livery they choose – the only people they’re accountable to is their board, their shareholders and, of course, to the rule of law. And Margaret Court is entitled to use her fame and public persona (in the same way that QANTAS uses its brand) to express her contrary review. We’re all entitled. I’m not more entitled than you are, and you’re no more entitled than I am. And then, when all is said and done, let democracy take her course, so long as she robs no one of their right to hold and express their views.
3. Based on understanding and respect, consider the nuance and the complexity
In other words, ditch the tribal blindness that’s destroying our democracies. There are pros and cons to every issue, be it social, economic, judicial, political, whatever it is. We’ve become very adept at uncritically consuming the news (see my post Is the News Making You Sick?). We just gulp it all down like the junk food that much of it is, without filtering out the dross, and without making up our own mind on important issues, after carefully weighing the pros and cons. Anything less than that is laziness and doesn’t deserve a hearing, I’m sorry. Shallowness and stereotyping, based on an uncritical, unthoughtful digestion of an issue, driven as it so often is by blind tribalism, is undeserving of a seat at the table.
A Final Note to the Christian Reader
God holds Christians to a much, much higher standard than everyone else. Any one who calls themselves by that name – a Christian – has an important role to play in all this. As Christians, we’re not called to win the argument; we’re called to win souls. Frankly, when I read some of the crap (that’s a biblical word, although most modern translations whimp out and use “rubbish” instead) that some so-called Christians put on Facebook, I want to weep. If you’re a “Christian” then listen to this very carefully:
Stay away from foolish and stupid arguments. You know that these arguments grow into bigger arguments. As a servant of the Lord, you must not argue. You must be kind to everyone. You must be a good teacher, and you must be patient. You must gently teach those who don’t agree with you. Maybe God will let them change their hearts so that they can accept the truth. (2 Timothy 2:23-25)
So there you have it. That’s my perspective. That’s my opinion. I’d love to hear yours. So please leave a comment below. And as you do, remember … respect, simple respect.