Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How do have the conversations that matter most?  Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered.  Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday.  Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon.  The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality).  A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline.  Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting.  As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote.  This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted):

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote.  It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern).  But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition.  Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them.  Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation.  This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling.  Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging.  Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the same-sex marriage debate.  His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement.  Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things.  We can do better.  But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echo-chambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints.  The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the flesh-and-blood church of Jesus Christ.  But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement.  I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

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7 thoughts on “Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate”

  1. Good word Drew…the temptation to just withdraw from the fray is always my worst enemy. Your words and Wright’s, Rosin’s, et al, are annoying reminders that I shouldn’t shrink back from the conversation as long as I want to walk the narrow road.

  2. I agree with much of what you say here, but I have to wonder if people holding forth over microphones in front of hundreds of other people, most of whose minds are already affixed, is actually conversation. It seems to me to be more of that “shouting match” that Wright is talking about and is counter-productive. I believe that the only way that there’s going to be any positive movement on this issue is through prayerful conversation – honest speaking and patient listening – and a commitment to speak with one another in ways that give grace to those who hear, building one another up, not tearing one another down.

  3. Other annual conferences that have held this conversation well during session have been in spaces more conducive to small groups than Stuart Auditorium. I believe it was the North Carolina Conference last year that had people in groups at round tables, speaking and sharing. If we want to model healthy practices for all involved, I believe a different space will be crucial.

  4. An excellent philosophical analysis of the current malaise that N.T. Wright identifies is Alasdair McIntyre’s chapter “Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism” in his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Macintyre argues that the Enlightenment project has reduced debate to assertion-counter assertion in which the only way to win is to force the other side into admitting defeat. If that happens, then the winning side has reason to believe their assertions are in fact, reasons. So, I agree that people talking at the microphone would lily have produce the assertion-counter assertion dynamic. Disappointing though is the missed opportunity, which reflects lack of leadership, to facilitate true debate.

  5. With all respect, Drew, to pretend this isn’t a conversation we’ve been having for over forty years is disingenuous at best. All the arguments have been heard ad nauseum. All the points of view have been heard from. The time for conversation, holy or otherwise, has been over for years. To insist we rehash the same talking points for the sake of some principle not only denies the reality of our years-long argument. It also has the practical effect of tying up time better spent on matters of more immediate import, about which Annual Conferences are more responsible.

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