I’ve been blogging now for over fifteen years, and have noticed for a while an increasingly alarming surge of accusatory, polarized, one-sided comments that quickly shuts down any chance of discussion. It’s often so comically shrill and angry that it comes off as a parody, like all those news shows that make fun of other news shows to prove how narrow-minded the rhetoric really is. There’s an instant reflex to dismiss what’s being said. I can’t imagine anyone would be so serious about such binary, “black-and-white,” dogmatically stubborn remarks — but it’s deadly serious, with the flag raised higher than the pole, on the furthest side of the narrowest platform on the tiniest soapbox possible.
I can’t talk with someone whose mind is already made up. There’s no room for questions, a dialogue, a real conversation, a hope that others can learn. It’s so snide and abrupt that I wonder why the time was spent to comment. It doesn’t matter if I get to explain my side of the story or elaborate on my intentions or even take back something I said: it’s all dead in the water.
I’m guilty of jumping to the same one-dimensional box, in my safe little categories of predicting what the other “side” would say, as if I’m the only one with the valuable insider information. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s not the end of the world to say, “I’m wrong.” It’s only the end of my false, self-affirming, imprisoning world of circular bias. It’s not weak to say, “I want to know if you know a better way.” It would make us stronger.
C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock talks about his Oxford Socratic Club, in which people of different religions and philosophies got together to discuss what they believed. They discovered that no one actually knew about each other’s worldviews. “Everyone found how little he had known about everyone else,” he said. The Christians had only heard the weakest form of atheism while the atheists had heard the weakest forms of Christianity. They had all parodied each other into straw men. As each member of the club presented their case, Lewis noted that the arguments themselves had “a life of their own,” free from the emotional hype and attacks that so often accompanied them. And in this, their own doctrines could meet by common grace, so that they grew to understand each other while at the same time finding strength in their own beliefs.
In psychology, they teach you about heuristics, and how each of us have an automatic framework for judgment. We spend the least amount of mental faculties on perceiving things around us because the brain is designed to take as many shortcuts as it can, all while preserving our own justifications. This is a process that can only be fought and re-wired by deliberate effort and time. It requires getting to know those phantom enemies that we’ve demonized, to hear their back-stories and how they got there. It means fighting the urge to throw a verbal grenade over the fence, but instead ask a question for clarity. Even if we disagree in the end, we can quit perpetuating a cycle of hate and dismissal. Even if the other person’s worldview is inherently toxic and dangerous, maybe we can find a way through the towers they have built — and in doing so, we tear down our own.
I don’t want to be one more negative angry voice that assumes the worst in someone else. There are enough of those. I’ve done it too many times and it’s been done to me: and no one gets better for it. We end up reinforcing our own blindness and drowning in our misinformed traditions. I want to say something surprising and helpful and gentle and challenging and honest. I want to be the voice that I would actually listen to. It’s how we close the gap between us. It’s how we cross this man-made, made-up chasm to make up for our weaknesses, and to bring our strengths to the table. It’s how we’ll make it.