I love debate. There are few things to me better than a good argument, presenting one’s case and rebutting the other. It’s a great way to refine one’s own opinion and to learn the perspective of another. That is, if it is a good debate.
This summer has been witness to quite a few bad ones, I have to say. Divisive and inflammatory issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage, gun control, the Affordable Care Act, Deflategate, the confederate flag, ISIL, Israel and Palestine, Cuba, immigration, Planned Parenthood, Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump, and the Iran nuclear deal, to name just a few, have dominated discussions and infuriated so many in the past few months. On any given day, my Facebook news feed exploded with impassioned, and often offensive, articles and opinions that left me angry and deflated. “Really? Why would you say that about that person? What is wrong with the world?”
Part of the problem is definitely the opinions themselves. Research done by the Pew Research Center (found here, with lots of infographics and great information so check it out!) shows that the United States is becoming increasingly extreme in its opinions and further divided on issues than in the past. The number of people that hold moderate opinions, able to bridge the gap between extremes, is diminishing while the extreme conservative and liberal stances are gaining support.
The real issue, though, has less to do with the opinions themselves and more to do with how we react to them. This same study found that an alarming number of people are beginning to see those of the opposing political party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” Compared to ten years ago, both sides moved away from the other: conservatives in this category more than doubled while liberals increased by a third. This is a major problem. Not only are we moving away from the other in what we hold true, we are much more likely to label and belittle the other as our enemy, becoming more comfortable with the notion that we don’t need the other. “Oh, those people? Who cares what they think? They’re ruining America.” This is not good debate for the sake of the truth. This is bad debate which seeks to destroy the enemy.
Anecdotally, my daily experience on Facebook and in general conversations has shown me that most of us simply don’t know how to talk with one another about difficult issues without becoming angry or taking things personally. Conversations about simple governmental policies or social issues quickly escalate with emotions and even offensive behavior. Why does this happen? How is it that opinions such as these can get us so angry that we are willing to post hateful articles, show disrespect to another, or even choose to end a relationship?
In my experience, the biggest problem is that we struggle to make a distinction between someone disagreeing with our idea and someone attacking our person. I had an experience like this once in a planning meeting. Throwing around ideas, I disagreed with one person in particular: “I see what you’re saying, but I just don’t agree. I think it would be better to do X, for these reasons…” Respectful, direct, and clearly thought out. After the meeting, though, this person came up to me upset and actually hurt: “What do you have against me?” he asked. What? I just disagreed with you. I don’t hate you! For him, he was so tied to his opinion, had allowed it to become intertwined with his identity, that a simple disagreement felt like an attack on him personally.
The problem with this is that our political rhetoric and smear campaigns are actually designed to do this. “He believes X, so he’s a bad person.” A quick look at any television ad shows what I mean: the pro-candidate is always in color with smiling faces while the one with a different stance is in black and white with dramatic or sad music. By attacking the person’s character with cheap emotional tricks, these ads try to convince us that, “If s/he is a bad person, her/his idea must also be bad, and vice-versa.” This sort of thinking leaves us unable to disagree with a candidate we respect or to like an idea from people we don’t get along with.
We as Catholics need not fall into this trap of bad debate, though. We know that every single human being is created in the image of God, and that the opinion one holds, even if completely idiotic at times, has absolutely no effect on the respect we must give to this God-given dignity. Yes someone may be severely misinformed, but we are called to love everyone, not because of what they believe, but because of what we believe, that they are created in the image of God.
For me, this is a non-negotiable for a good debate. No matter how much I may disagree with someone on the most fundamental of principles, there is never an excuse to confuse the idea with the person, attacking both indiscriminately. Who wins from that? If our goal is to actually convince people of our side, namely that the love of Christ is freely given to all and is fueling our mission in the world, hatred and impatience is not going to do a great job at expressing that! And we all struggle with this, I’m sure! I know that when I’m faced with certain opinions, it is really hard to show the respect that Christ shows me. But here’s the thing: that is exactly the moment we need to show it most. It is in those debates with those who agree with us least, say…a pro-abortion pedophile Nazi who worships trees and burns the American flag for fun… that we need to be at our absolute best, arguing not only with good logic and reason, but with the way we treat them.
It is why I would love to see more Catholics on inflammatory shows like Rush Limbaugh preaching peaceful and balanced dialogue, conservative news sources like Fox News speaking about climate change and immigration, and liberal news stations like MSNBC defending the life of the unborn. If done with respect and intelligence, those are the places we need to be entering the debate. And we need to be entering. Some opinions should make us angry. They should infuriate us. It is not only appropriate to hate an idea and stand against it at times, it is our Christian responsibility to do so. As long as we do so as Christians. Our anger should always be proportionate to the gravity of the situation and rightly directly, aimed at the opinion and never the person professing it. What is the purpose of winning an argument if it as the expense of belittling our brother or sister? We all lose in that situation. Instead, let us debate with one another like Christians, with respect for the other, and with the goal not of beating our opponent, but of challenging them (and letting them challenge us) to discover greater truth from which we can ALL benefit. That, I say, is a debate with dignity, and there are few things I like more in the world.