The Art of Arguing

The other day I had an unfortunate run-in with someone on Facebook.

Scrolling through my newsfeed, I found an acquaintance of mine had posted something about the election from the viewpoint of the Catholic Church. Not recognizing the news source (not a good sign) and seeing a provocative title (something like, “Vote correctly or see your church close in November”) I hesitantly clicked. Apparently, some priest was telling everyone that if a “certain party” was elected, Churches would be forced to accept new doctrines, decided on by the government, or they would be forced to close because it was the goal of this party to destroy the family and shut down all churches.

Ugh. Talk about fear-mongering and dangerous rhetoric… and in the name of the Church.

While I try not to get involved with things like this when I can, I felt that, as a representative of the Catholic Church and knowing that this person had influence, I needed to make a public statement about the article. Responding via comment, I said that I was very disappointed in the priest and article, that it is yet another example of people trying to manipulate voters with fears that are not based in reality, and assured people that neither party has stated it plans to (or is even capable of) repealing the First Amendment, and that despite statements like this over the past eight years, religious houses of worship have always been granted exemptions to issues of religious freedom. This person’s response? “I’m entitled to my opinion and so are you.” The problem I had with this article, of course, was not that it shared opinions different from mine, but that it shared “facts” that were not true. No one is entitled to say things that are not true.

After writing this as a response, I was not only “defriended,” I was blocked entirely. Ouch.

The reason I write this is not to dwell on this particular encounter, as this is a nice person and I do not mean any harm, nor is it to discuss the issue of religious freedom and the interplay of government and religious institutions, as that is a topic for another day and another time. Instead, I have something very specific, and very important on my mind: we need to learn how to argue with each other.

This may sound like a strange statement coming from a man of peace, but I think the very fact that it does is one of the great failings of our current society (and Church!) and why we are as polarized as we are today. Arguments are not evil encounters that only exist with bad people and so should be avoided at all costs. No! Arguments are simply situations in which people who have come to different conclusions about something engage one another in conversation. Sure, they can be heated. Of course, passion may drive the conversation. But choosing to stand up for one’s opinion rather than ignore the situation or immediately assent to the other’s is not a bad thing, and it most certainly doesn’t have to end in punches or defriending. It can be a very good thing. At least, if it’s done well. As a Catholic and as a Franciscan living in a pluralistic United States, I think that we absolutely have to engage people, but that we need to do it with a few things in mind.

Arguments are not meant to be “won” The biggest issue for many is a conceptional one: the point of a good argument is not to defeat one’s opponent, it is to improve the understanding of the issue at hand for everyone. If the goal of each is to simply “win” the argument, the conversation becomes less about the issue itself—presumably something important worth doing—and more about determining who is “right” and who is “wrong.” But is there ever really a case in which one person is 100% right and the other 100% wrong? Likely not. No matter the situation, there is guaranteed to be something that both parties can walk away with better off than where they started.

But let’s say that there is such a case and one person is just categorically wrong and refuses to accept the truth, i.e. someone who believes that vaccinations cause autism. What is truly gained from seeing each other as enemies and creating winners and losers and making it one’s goal to belittle them? In those cases, I think we as Christians are called to go below the surface of the argument, to seek to understand the person a little better so as to know why they see the world as they do. There might in fact be something very true—a life experience, a fear, a hope for the future—that is shared between both parties and may help to bridge the gap of understanding. This is a situation in which everyone wins, no matter what they ultimately conclude.

Some arguments are just bad… but that doesn’t mean people are In a class years ago, a student shared an opinion that I felt misinterpreted the situation. I raised my hand and said, “I see where you’re coming from, but based on X and Y, I have to disagree.” After class, he came up to me and asked what I had against him. Huh? I don’t have anything against you! For him, there was no distinction between one’s ideas and one’s self, and so me attacking his idea was interpreted as me attacking him.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes good people have bad ideas and bad people have good ideas. In entering a debate, we need to always make the distinction between who someone is and what they’re arguing, and not a) let our emotions get the best of us and become offended by disagreement, or b) belittle an argument based on the character of the one saying it. If God has taught us anything in history it’s that the weakest and least likely people are are just as capable of speaking the truth as the wealthy and well-learned. Truth exists not because of the merit of the one who says it, but because it’s true in itself. In arguing, we are seek the truth irrespective of who says it.

Humility can go a long way The opposite is also true. Certain friends or family might find this final statement a bit humorous coming from me, but one of the most critical traits one has to have to argue well is the ability to admit to being wrong and change when necessary. Being impervious to change and unrelenting in one’s opinion does not make one “faithful,” it makes one dogmatic and an ideologue. Jesus denounced these people when he walked the earth and he certainly doesn’t need people like that now to build up his Church. What he did need, and what he desperately needs now, are men and women who have a firm foundation in the truth of God and God’s creation, but are willing to admit that they themselves are not omniscient or omnipotent—people who are willing to work from a foundation but adapt to the pastoral and cultural “signs of the times.”

Does that mean that everything needs to be on the table at all times? Of course not. For what it’s worth, I will probably never change my opinion on the human and divine nature of Jesus, the holiness of human life, and the need to care for the poor and marginalized. These are non-negotionables for me, and we all have them. What must always be open to change, however, is what these things mean in the modern world and how we are to live them out. And if this is can be true for something as important as how we honor the holiness of human life (something that has drastically changed every century in Church history), then it seems only fitting that we be able to do the same when it comes to taxes, education, daily habits, liturgy, where we eat dinner, foreign policy, and bed times.

***

We live in a world with seven billion people, all going in different directions with different sets of values. Thinking that we will always get along, or worse yet, that we should avoid anyone who disagrees with us for fear of conflicts, is not for Christians. It’s not the way Jesus lived by any means. When we commit to living by a radical worldview, we should not only expect arguments with others, we should welcome it. Evangelization does not occur when people already agree with us, it occurs when we engage people who have come to different conclusions about the world than us. As Christians, are we going to treat these people as our enemies, putting them down or running from them, or are we going to welcome them into peaceful, fruitful dialogue in which we learn to seek the truth together?

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3 Comments on “The Art of Arguing

  1. Excellent especially for this Feast Day of St. Francis. I’m reminded of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 4:29 . Words and our temperament towards others is key – thanks for the reminder. ChrisH, SFO

  2. Firstly, this the first blog I have read from Casey. At 61 I am re connecting with the Franciscan family. So I hope these blogs will help with my SFO formation.

    I work in a court so hear plenty of arguments from defense counsel and the police or the Crown.

    It is important to respect the point of view of others even though you don’t hold their point of view and I am sure with a good and sound argument one can learn something new. That would be the positive outcome.

  3. Brother Casey, I admire your ability to pull out your reflections from everyday experiences.

    Pope Benedict XVI was so inspired when he called “Caritas in Veritate”, the Charity in Truth, to his famous encyclical letter. That charity must be just at the heart of the art of arguing. The Pope writes: “It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbour; it is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones).” Charity (ágape) is a special and pure love that prevents self-aggrandizement, a fundamental Christian virtue to achieve.

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