There has been a number of times this week when the subject of civil discourse has arisen.It strikes me as pertinent as often there is a lot of common ground to be had, even with those we disagree, and as my dad taught me: good manners doesn’t cost us anything and could help us to gain much. I was struck earlier by a post by a preacher I admire, Ravi Zacharias: “History has taught us to beware of extremists in any camp that sacrifice cordial conversation at the altar of demagogic enforcement. Views and opinions are aplenty in our world of tweeting and Instagram, but civil discourse is rare. And rarer still is the ability to defend one’s beliefs with reason and experience… http://bit.ly/2hYuMto #JASG”. The latter point is particularly pertinent because however passionate we may feel about some point we wish to make, it is important to back this up with evidence even when having done so already, and yet always try to respect the person we are talking to whether we agree or not.
He has laid down a challenge as did a friend, who like me works on the front line concerning helping the homeless, and yet disagrees vehemently with me on the two issues that have caused good people who would otherwise be seen as friends, to fall out: the pros and cons of Brexit and a Donald Trump presidency. I found concerning his blog post titled “‘I Didn’t Meme to Hurt You’: disagreeing better online” that in this instance I agreed fully. I couldn’t help smiling at another Facebook thread, initiated by a well known and respected Christian leader, concerning the recent Day of Prayer attended by Donald Trump, seeing the strong disagreements on offer. One person wrote he felt it was his duty to put Christians right who have the temerity to believe Trump is one of the good guys. I couldn’t help responding with the tongue in cheek but passionately held view that many of my anti-Trump Christian friends have been conned by a dishonest media and were just plain wrong, and I needed to make the opposite point, sometimes with evangelical zeal.
I had three experiences during the week pertinent to this discussion. The first was a meeting over coffee with an environmental activist friend who not only disagrees with me about Brexit and Trump but on many other matters too. Yet this was not the reason for our meeting. For me, the main object was to listen to someone who had thought through issues like Climate Change, so I can be better informed and better placed when coming to a view what to do about it. It was time very well spent. My second was shortly after when meeting the owner of a nearby fish and chip shop. I wanted to thank him personally for the help he gave to the Soup Kitchen I happen to chair in feeding the homeless two days prior. I posted my experience on Facebook and was amazed at the number of likes and shares I received. I suspect this was partly due to the owner being a Muslim from Pakistan, which is relevant given some of the tensions we are currently seeing around immigrants and Muslims. My third was being called upon the act as a mediator between a representative of the owner of a building currently being taken over by otherwise homeless squatters. It happens that I am on good terms with both parties and while not able to bring about an outcome that satisfies both parties, at least I was able to help initiate civil discourse.
I am pretty sure there will be many more occasions when I will find myself disagreeing with friends, and regret in the past I have fallen out with those who see things differently and this has cost us both. What is needed is wisdom to know when to wade in, sometimes to places where angels fear to tread, and when to withdraw from fruitless argument, and to weigh all the facts before making pronouncements, recognizing there is a tendency in all of us to take in that which coincides with our own prejudices. It is also worth remembering that peaceful protest and decent dissent, even when opposed to one’s own beliefs, should be allowed; for if we fail to do so we find ourselves on a slippery slope. Sometimes we should be discoursing less and doing (and praying) more. But when we do engage with those we may disagree with, what should then follow is civil discourse and not the uncivil demeaning of others. I fear we are seeing too much of the latter these days and that can not be healthy.
I have not always maintained the “true, necessary and kind” principle I have long advocated and my main purpose is to serve and glorify God, but at least I know that is what I should be doing. Sometimes it may be better to say nothing or at least weigh the situation and bide our time. The best advice maybe is what my blogger friend’s dad, who once wisely counseled me when I was a zealous young student who thought he knew it all, had passed onto him: “sometimes its better to lose an argument and keep a friend”.