So, it was recently brought to my attention by a friend that there are some things that I and my ilk sometimes take for granted when it comes to conversational rules. She linked me this Slactivist post about biblicists fostering nastiness in conversation and generally associating other view points with deep moral corruption. I rejoined that this is a novice view and that the Slactivist post was way over blown and typical of whiny complainers who don’t care to know the structure of intense conversation. Her response was very simply that I shouldn’t expect all people to be privy to the unspoken rules of engagement. This is quite true. While I expect much better from Fred Clark, who definitely knows the rules and has reduced himself to a whiner simply to gain sympathy, I do want to establish the status quo for everyone across the board.
What we all know is that conversation is important for community. We also know equally well that the more a conversation effects the way a community lives the more passionate and intense it can get. When conversations get tense they can fizzle out or splinter which is bad because it is exactly concerning these tough topics that continuing conversation is most important. This much should be obvious. However when conversation gets tense there are rules that can guide it that have been established for a very long time. The only problem is these rules have been co-opted by the academy and as a result their is an assumption on the part of people who debate in the academic setting that, a. these rules are the best and ought not to be challenged, and b. that every rational person knows them.
Truth to tell these rules may be old and have good arguments in their favor but they are hardly ideal, secondly they are unspoken rules which makes expecting everyone to know them a little ridiculous.
The premise of my friend’s questions and the Slactivist post can be summed up in a word picture. If you walked past a room in which to people were arguing over scriptural interpretation, theology, or ethics you may hear them speaking loudly, in hard tones, passionately, and vigorously trying to dismember each others arguments and render them ridiculous. You might very well assume, and who wouldn’t, that the two people deeply dislike each other and, based on the things they are saying, suspect each other of malicious intent. Thus Clark, who really knows better but loves to play the crowd, makes a lot of noise about how disagreeing with a biblicist will cause them to suspect you of deepest corruption and evil intention. This is preposterous and largely untrue. Sure there are some people who suspect anyone who disagrees with them of being evil, but there are people like that in every group, discipline, denomination, club or any other get together. We call them assholes and mostly ignore them.
To understand the argument in the room accurately you need to know the rules.
First rule, care very deeply about your position and be convinced that it is true. Second rule, care equally deeply about the welfare and nurture of the other person and those their view effects. Third rule, out of a desire that they should come around to your way of thinking for their own good, argue the hell out of them.
This is equally true in any discipline and knowing the rules or not makes all the difference. In fact, in my experience, the farther a discipline is from theology the greater the likelihood of personal ill-will between debaters. But even so, while they may suspect each other of being stupid, they do not suspect each other of bad intent towards the discipline or people. For example when I was working on my history degree and spent the majority of my time with a few friends, Danner and Ben in particular. Every time we shared a paper or gave a presentation, we tore at each other taking advantage of every flaw. We didn’t do this because we didn’t like each other or suspected each other of failing to do due diligence to the topic. Far from that, we really wanted each other to be good at the discipline of history, and we all knew the rules. So after each intellectual evisceration we’d laugh and go play Frisbee golf. But one day a girl who was new to the school and the program joined our class and prepared her first presentation. We welcomed her enthusiastically over the course of a week or two and we assumed that this friendliness in combination with the unspoken rules gave a green light for business as usual when it came time for her to present. The problem is she didn’t know the rules. We tore her thesis to shreds and she left the room after her presentation in tears. Shortly after she quit the class and maybe even the program and I didn’t see her again in any history classes. I deeply regretted this but there was no malice whatsoever nor did we suspect her of being a lazy or a bad historian, we were just doing history the way we had been taught. As I said before, just because these rules are really old doesn’t necessarily make them the best rules. If she had known the rules all of our critiques would have seriously strengthened her next presentation.
The same is true of theological discussion and with the same consequences. What from the outside may seem like a personal attack is, in fact, more of a personal, if very pointed, plea. Rarely will people in debate suspect each other of foul intent, because that is deeply insensitive and illogical. For example, as a staunch conservative attending a rabidly liberal seminary, I spent almost every day in debate. I love my seminary friends and we had a great time together, but we fiercely disagree about a lot of things. It would be a deep understatement to say that we strengthened one another in our debate skills, we did far far more than that and I’m very grateful for the skills I have as a result. But if you heard us debate you might not think we were friends. I believe that they have been duped by lies that are virulent and destructive and will bring a very real cost in souls to the kingdom of God, and they believe the very same about me. They have told me that they love me and I have told them the same. They want me to see the world the way they do because they think it will give me life and bring me closer to the Christ we both love. I believe the same concerning them. But I despise some of their beliefs as they despise some of mine. I believe that some things they believe are evil and they believe the same of me, but we never question each other’s genuine good intent or love of Christ.
So if you want to join the conversation, and I really hope you do because we need your voice, please understand the rules. They may not be the best rules, but sadly you’ll have to change them from the inside. If people sound fierce it’s probably because they care about you. And as far as I know people are pretty cool with being told to back-off and cool down, we all know very well how heated we can get. Just don’t be a whiny-pants and mope about how people aren’t nice to you. In real conversation there is no room for hand-holding. If you really care let your passion speak for itself.
And Fred Clark, quit crying in the corner and let your balls drop, for shit sake. If you assume that someone who disagrees with you hates you and thinks you’re evil, you’re doing more to polarize the situation than they are. You become the problem.
Jacob wrestled with God and got a dislocated hip that gave him a lifelong limp. He also received a great blessing and a new name.
Peace and love to you all in Christ