We teach our kids to “play by the rules.” We also do so at work, and there are even laws in place to ensure this. Our nation functions because there are rules we all agree are in our best interest to follow. Rules are necessary in order to ensure fair games, healthy work environments, and just societies.
So, too, is it with conversations. Unless certain rules are followed, conversations will not help us find truth. Rather, as discussed last week, they will devolve into name-calling, shouting matches, and eventually power plays to impose one’s will on the other.
No one wants this (or at least not reasonable people). Therefore, we must identify and agree to basic “ground rules” to guide our conversations, so as to find common ground together. Last week, I identified the first ground rule: a shared commitment to find truth. This week I’ll discuss three more basic ground rules we must all commit to abide by.
Commit to Understand the Other’s View
Second is the commitment to work hard at understanding the other’s point of view. It has been said that we only earn the right to critique another’s position when we understand it well. Stephen Covey listed this as his fifth habit of highly successful people (in his bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change), saying “Seek first to understand, then be understood”--
If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
This means that before saying the other is wrong, we should be able to state their position as well (or even better) than they can. In this way we avoid falling into a number of errors in our reasoning (such as being guilty of the Straw Man fallacy, discussed in some detail here and touched on again later in this series).
Of course, this is very hard to do. It is much easier to simply label and describe the others view in unflattering ways, and then quickly dismiss it. In this way we don’t have to deal with the real issue, including its nuances and support. And we don’t open ourselves up to the possibility of seeing weaknesses in our own view.
One way we often successfully avoid understanding the other’s view, no matter what the issue, is being sure we are only around those who agree with us. This is especially true in our day of social media. We only have Facebook friends who post what we already agree with on an issue. We only read blogs that restate our current views. We only subscribe to newsfeeds that affirm our current beliefs. And when we do get together with real people, we do so from within our social media circles, so we can be sure they, too, share our views.
One result of this, beyond limiting our ability to think well about an issue by understanding all points of view, is that it demonizes the other. We don’t know others who take a different point of view, nor do we understand why they would believe as they do. So we come to believe they must be evil.
This further isolates us from relationships with those holding different points of view. As a result, we find we have lost the ability to have healthy, rational, truth-focused conversations with them. We lose the art of public discourse seeking the good of all.
To avoid this natural slide into bigotry we must commit to understanding the other’s point of view. And this leads to the third ground rule.
Commit to Assuming the Best of the Other
Third, seeking first to understand begins with the commitment to assume the best of the other, and give his or her point of view the most “charitable” read. How can her position be understood in the most favorable light? Where is there already “common ground”—points we agree upon to serve as starting points in the conversation?
Giving one another’s point of view the most charitable read includes not defining the position by those on the extremes. For any view there are extremists. It is tempting to assume they speak for all, and therefore discount the view in light of this. Doing so is another way we can fall into the Straw Man fallacy—characterizing the view in an extreme way that makes it easy to discount. No, just because there are extremists on any side of a debate does not invalidate the more moderate proponents of the view.
Furthermore, this honors the other as a person worthy of respect as an image-bearer of God himself. No matter what a person believes, that person has inherent value, dignity, and worth due to sharing the imago Dei. One way we affirm this value and dignity is by not assuming impure motives are driving those holding the opposite view.
Rather, to really do the view justice we must assume the person holding the position is doing so in a sincere desire to seek what is good and true. Only then can we best understand the view and its merits. This also helps us avoid falling into the Ad hominem fallacy, discussed in detail here and also discussed in relation to this issue later in this series.
Commit to Being Humble and Open to Correction
Fourth, to enter into honest, healthy, and fruitful dialogue assumes both parties are humble enough to admit they may be wrong, and say so. Otherwise it is not really a conversation, but a series of speeches to overwhelm the other. Worse yet, the conversation may devolve into a power play which silences the other view, dismissing the position by force.
A good question each should ask the other to be sure a healthy conversation can be had is, “What would it take for you to change your mind on this?” If nothing, even in principle, would change the person’s mind, he or she is not really interested in having a conversation or discovering truth. Such epistemic arrogance is a sure sign that we are wasting our time trying to have a productive conversation with this person. On the other hand, if we are not able to state what would change our mind on the matter, we are the one guilty of epistemic arrogance.
Unfortunately, some on both sides of the LGBTQ+ issue fail to follow these ground rules. As a result, the conversation shuts down, and shouting matches or power plays begin, creating much heat but not much light.
Next week I’ll discuss the fifth and final ground rule to help us find common ground in any conversation, including the current LGBTQ+ discussion. Until then, grace and peace.