Social commentary

Disagreeing well is good for us (far better than echo-chambers which just reinforce what we already believe)

4-no-3It has been a fascinating seeing the reaction to the article written by my old school friend, Nick Miles’ on why he is voting for Trump.

One of my cousins texted me and said ‘Oh Jon, what have you unleashed on Facebook?’ as he saw my feed flooded with heated debate in response to the pro-Trump article.

Another R&R reader wrote saying: ‘What were you thinking putting this on the site?’  It’s a fair question. And the answer is because I wanted to generate exactly the kind of response that I got: a robust and healthy debate.

The reason I asked Nick to write the piece is precisely because I don’t agree with him. Our political and theological perspectives are miles apart. But, whatever we think of his views, his article represents a perspective shared by millions of people in the US. I think its worth trying to engage and understand these perspectives and not simply write them off.

Reading the debate on Facebook has made me reflect on the following three points:

1. We need genuine debate with those we disagree with

The internet can make us think that we are drawing news from a wide range of sources. But often our news feeds are often formed by algorithms which present us with the kind of articles we have clicked on before. They know what we like and will keep feeding it to us.

My vision for R&R is a blog site with articles which cut across the political and theological silos, to be a place of independent thinking and genuine debate. It’s easier to only post articles which conform to set political or theological tribal boundaries but this can simply become an echo chamber where the same beliefs are recycled and reinforced.

When I started the Faithfulness Matters campaign in response to adverts which promoted marital affairs, I got a lot of support from more conservative Christians. But then when I wrote an article soon after questioning whether Christians should send their children to private schools, I got criticism from those same people.

But that’s OK. Both the political right and left, and the theologically liberal and conservative, have strengths and weaknesses. Christians are not called to be expedient – we are called to be faithful.  And I believe that following Jesus means being ‘unreliable allies’ to both sides in the political and theological debates that rage.

2. We should reject ‘correctness’ of opinion

As a social work student in the early 1990s, I experienced many environments where an enforced correctness of opinion prevailed. The so-called ‘safe spaces’ within some of the student conferences I attended created some of the most fearful and suppressed environments I have ever participated in.

Today, the concept of political correctness is always associated with ‘progressive’ liberal-left thinking relating to being anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic. But, pressure to express only ‘correct views’ can develop in any institution, organisation, church, conference or website.

But if people are not free to argue, to disagree and go against the flow, it leads to brittle beliefs which cannot be defended and argued for effectively in the real world. Healthy and robust debate leads to a proper confidence and maturity.

3. Watching our use of labels which short-cut debate

So often in arguments, labels are used as as short cuts to dismiss the validity of someone else’s perspective.  This form of criticism is rife in the church where labels such as ‘liberal’ or ‘fundamentalist’ are generally used to write off the perspectives of others.

But its broader than that. Increasingly, to use a football analogy, we play the person not the ball. The Brexit debates and other recent rows have typified this issue. Those who question immigration can be instantly labelled ‘racist’; or anyone who questions Israel’s policies is automatically ‘anti-Semitic’ or anyone who is concerned about rates of abortion must be ‘misogynistic’.

There is much genuine racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny at work in the world. But we need to use this labels carefully. So often they instantly create heat rather than light and make meaningful debate impossible.

Lively and interesting

As I have made clear, I don’t agree with Nick Miles’ perspective and if I was American then there is no way Trump would get my vote. I continue to find US Evangelical culture baffling and troubling, but I have appreciated Nick’s willingness to set out what he believes and to respond to the many people who disagreed with him.

The purpose of the article was summed up well by my friend Renee who lives in New Zealand, who wrote on my Facebook thread:

“Thanks everyone for a lively and interesting discussion. Thanks to Jon for the opportunity.”

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