This past week I have been listening extensively to ‘The Sacred’ Podcast on the recommendation of my colleague Naomi.
The premise of the podcast is that understanding another’s ‘sacred’ values can lead to more productive public discussion. Each episode is a conversation with someone about their values and thoughts on public discussion.
Why is good public discussion hard?
Public discussion is hard because difference creates space for disagreement. This can lead to conflict because disagreement too often feels like a form of personal rejection. When a firmly held belief is critiqued we take offence – it harms our pride as knowers and reasoners. In a modern world where we are more ‘connected’ with difference, there is more scope for fallout.
It seems our current approach is to either allow for fragmentation and ghettoization, or to maintain some form of false ‘civil silence’ which sidesteps matters of difference. This is often named ‘tolerance’.
In the Teresa Bejan episode of ‘The Sacred’ podcast, an alternative form of toleration is discussed, with reference to Roger Williams of Rhode Island. Toleration in this context is treated as an engaged practice, a refusal to give up on people, a negative witness against error. It is almost, then, a ‘universal evangelism’.
I know how hard public discussion is from some of the political conversations I have had over the past couple of months.
I know how quickly I slip into feeling defensive if someone disagrees in a reasoned way, and how quickly I slip into feeling outraged if someone disagrees in (what I deem to be) an ‘unreasoned’ way. I stop responding and start merely reacting.
You would think my belief that there is capital-T truth expressed in the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord, would be tempered by my belief in the brokenness, corruption and un-knowingness of humanity. As the KJV says ‘Now we see through a glass, darkly‘ (1 Corinthians 13); we can have knowledge that is sufficient, not exhaustive.
Unfortunately, pride gets in the way. It is my hope that I would learn to practice epistemic humility and a readiness to love those I am in discussion with more than I love winning an argument. (The effects of my heritage as a ruthlessly tactical player of musical statues at childhood birthday parties are painfully felt).
Teresa issues a challenge at the end of her episode: to have a reaction to disagreements other than outrage.
Something I am going to try when I feel defensive or outrage is to ask why I am acting as if I am under threat; I think that curiosity comes out of a sense of safety. Reminding myself that the only thing I have to lose is my pride may just be a helpful thing to do.