Friday, January 6, 2012

How to Disagree Well

Disagreeing comes naturally to everyone.  We all have cherished opinions, views we often hold to be on the level of indisputable truth.  Unfortunately when two contrasting opinions meet contention frequently results.  Some avoid conflict altogether by simply keeping their opinions to themselves.  Others strive to resolve the apparent contention by giving in and conceding their point, another means of avoiding conflict.  Still others argue to the death in a win at any cost, take no prisoners approach.  One would hope that there might still be another option that does not need to fall to either extreme.

On the Crossings website a view was offered on "How to Disagree Well" by the Rev. Dr. S. John Roth.  His advice on how to disagree well is summarized in the following three points: 

1) Fairness. I am disagreeing well when I can state the position of the person I am disputing with accurately enough that that other person recognizes that position as genuinely his/her position.
2) Intellectual integrity. I am disagreeing well when I can state the strongest, most compelling argument against my position. In other words, I am disagreeing well when I can recognize and acknowledge where my own position is most vulnerable and where a contrasting position makes valid points.
3) Honest humility. I am disagreeing well when, after thinking through my position and expressing it with true conviction, I acknowledge that as a fallen, flawed human being I myself may be wrong.

There is much here to commend.  Too often we become so caught up in our own opinions and views we forget that it is still necessary to be polite, respectful and fair no matter how passionate we might be about the topic.  As a technique of debating it is always good to be aware of the vulnerable areas of your own argument.  We can have a blind spot to our weaknesses because our our self-assured certainty.  And, as Dr. Roth notes, we must always be conscious of our human sinfulness, realizing that even with the best intentions we can end up treating people rudely, forgetting to see them as fellow children of God.  How often we have all deplored the violation of Luther's principle in the 8th commandment to "put the best construction on everything," or "explain everything in the kindest way."  It never serves our purpose to disparage the motives of our opponent, painting them as a villain just because they believe something with which we vehemently disagree.  Sometimes people have blind spots of their own and simply can't see the flaws of their views.  Patience to help the person see this may take time, but in the end it will certainly leave you with a chance of disagreeing yet not descending into the rancor of hate-filled rhetoric.

As one who has labored in the church I have seen more than my share of poor disagreements.  Unfortunately with election season upon us we are afforded a daily opportunity to see this phenomena played out in bold and living color.  Perhaps at the beginning of a new year it is a good time to remind ourselves that disagreeing can actually be done well, but we will have to work at it for it to be that way.

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