The Art of Disagreement

September 22, 2010

The church used to be really good at commissioning art.  Now, not so much.  We pretty much shun art.

There’s another art we’re no good at either.  But we’re not the only ones.  Pretty much all of humanity has still not mastered this art…

The art of disagreement.

You’d think by now, we’d have this thing down.  We’ve been doing it…well, forever.  Yet for some reason, people still can’t get it right when it comes to resolving their differences.  I think it’s been no more apparent than the time we live in.  And I’ve got something to say about it, whether you agree with me or not.

Disagreement is an Art

I really think that.  I was on the debate team in high school.  We disagreed with each other a lot.  Yet after centuries of disagreement, most people still can’t do it right.  Allow me to enlighten you with a short history of disagreement:

900 thousand BC:  Og, the caveman gets super pissed when his neighbor, Carl deliberately walks his pet dinosaur over the property line to leave a half ton pile of crap on his very meticulously manicured yard.  Og responds in kind by allowing his saber toothed tiger to squat on Carl’s tulip garden and eat Carl.

1804 AD:  Aaron Burr, having a long standing disagreement with Alexander Hamilton, removes his left handglove and, brandishing it in a manner most threatening, assails Hamilton, slapping him with the glove about the face and neck and says, “You have insulted my integrity!  I challenge you to a duel!”  He then runs over Hamilton with a bulldozer and continues to work as Vice President.

Present Day:  Six year old, Johnny, upon hearing some upsetting news from his older sister, resorts to childish namecalling.  Meanwhile, the adults of the world settle their differences not by debating the issues they disagree upon, but by calling each other unamerican, unpatriotic, unchristian, intolerant, racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, fundamentalists, liberals, deniers, idealogues, retarded, partisan, or pinheads.  And if none of that works, you can just call someone gay.

We’re not even going to the effort of coming up with clever insults like the old days.  With so much emphasis on who’s on “our” side, and who’s against us, it can only lead to one thing.

We’ve Got Hate Built into Us

You know I feel strongly about a lot of things.  I tend to feel strongly about things I’m right about, and I’m right about many things.  There are a lot of ideas that I think are absolutely ridiculous.  I think there are ideas that are tearing apart our churches and crushing our culture.  But of all the ideas I hate, I absolutely hate that I am conditioned every day to hate so many people.

I am told everyday why I should hate virtually everyone, depending on what my opinions are.  I am supposed to hate liberals and conservatives, immigrants and border patrol agents.  I’m supposed to hate the President, the Pope, Wall Street, Wal-Mart, and anyone else who I can dream has slighted me in some way.  But the worst is that I’m programmed to draw a line in the sand on every little issue, and if my friends and family don’t cross over to my side, then there must be something wrong with them, and they must be avoided.

That’s an exhausting way to live.  We aren’t built for it.  But people get up and live that way every day, even without thinking.  I guarantee this holiday season (sorry, “Christmas season”) will not just be about Jesus, as if it ever was.  Christians will be given the marching orders to boycott another store that doesn’t use the word “Christmas.”  Just wouldn’t be Christmas without picking a fight with someone.  We practically can’t help but pick someone to not just disagree with, but wage war against.  But with our history of burning heretics and splitting into 20,000 denominations, what can you expect?  It’s as if we think we’d be happy if we could just get rid of all the people we disagree with.

Which leads me to this thought…

How Do You Know What You Believe?

How often do you try to interact honestly with people you disagree with?  Most of us try to surround ourselves with people who validate our opinions.  We read blogs and books and watch TV and listen to radio that validates us.  We listen to preachers who validate what we already know.  If they fail to tell us what we already know to be true, we tune out.  We avoid spending too much time with our extended families, just to avoid an argument.

Most normal people put a ton of effort into insulating  themselves from people who are wrong.  That’s why people go to Bible college (which I was in for two years.)  But I ask you, how can you know what you believe if you’re only around people who agree with you?  If you’re scared that being around people who you disagree with will somehow “corrupt” you, I’d say if being around other people makes you change your beliefs, you didn’t really believe what you thought you did, or your beliefs weren’t worth anything.

People have always believed that they are right.  And guess what?  Usually, they’re wrong.  We’re no different.  We soldier on for the “truth,” as if we’ll never have to change our minds about the world being flat.  George Bernard Shaw said, “All great truths begin as blasphemies.”  My worship leader tells me that he’s glad I’m giving messages on Sundays that he doesn’t want to hear.  He is one of my most challenging and best friends.  Always something to disagree about.

I hope you know that I’ve always welcomed disagreement from my readers.  If you agreed with everything I said, I don’t know what that would say about you or me.  It might mean that you are almost as intelligent as me, which seems unlikely, as my intelligence is so high that conventional IQ tests cannot measure it.  But most often, people who write in with their disagreements tend to sharpen,  focus, and sometimes slightly change my beliefs.  I’m always just as grateful for the disagreeable commenters as I am the people who are giving me high fives for being brilliant.  The disagreement makes me a better writer, more empathetic to others, and smarter, if that is possible.

How do you handle disagreement in your home, church or work?  Do you try to insulate yourself from people who are wrong, or do you try to evaluate what they are saying?  How many disagreements do you give a pastor, a blog, a friend before you’ve had enough?

20 responses to The Art of Disagreement

  1. Matt: love you tongue-in-cheek writing (especially your early time line). As to your question: I have always valued others’ opinion. I know I am mostly right (ahem) but do value listening to what others think of my “rightness.” Seriously, (as if you didn’t already know i was joking), i have tried hard not to insulate myself from dissenting views of others. Yes, they annoy me sometimes (as if I never annoy anyone). Yes, they challenge me. Yes, they make me think. And No, I don’t always like what someone says. But if the people we surround ourselves with always agree with us where is the growth in that? I don’t want to be surrounded by “Yes” men. I do like healthy discussion where the people leave linked arm in arm and heading out the door for a Diet Dr. Pepper. (Sorry I don’t drink) :)

  2. How do you handle disagreement in your home, church or work? Do you try to insulate yourself from people who are wrong, or do you try to evaluate what they are saying? How many disagreements do you give a pastor, a blog, a friend before you’ve had enough?

    I’ve been going through therapy and it’s helping me with anger and disagreeing all the time with my wife. It’s really a control issue on my part. I’m learning to actually listen to my wife, imagine that. In church, I honestly tune out. I’ve been tuning out for the past 2 years. I’ve heard all that stuff all my life. I think that’s why I don’t get involved in ministries because I don’t really feel like getting stressed if I have an idea and nobody wants to change. Baptist churches are a family business, don’t forget. There’s no use trying to win an argument there.

    At work, lately there’s a lady here who isn’t my boss but insists I do things how she does them. It’s getting to the point where I seriously make fun of her because it’s so ridiculous.

    • I that’s a big one for a lot of people, myself included – realizing that we are not in control of our surroundings. People who become excessively angry or hostile towards others or culture are often attempting to regain a sense of control.

  3. How many disagreements do you give a pastor, a blog, a friend before you’ve had enough?

    It’s rare that I disagree with someone on everything, so I’m usually able to get past the things we disagree on and focus on the others. But when it’s someone who thinks every encounter with me needs to be a debate so they can bring me around to their way of thinking, I usually wind up avoiding them because they leave me exhausted and drained.

    As for blogs, most are the same as the people I know. I agree on some things they write, but not everything. I read several that I often disagree with but I’ve only stopped reading a couple altogether as a result of disagreement. I think all of those were because they resorted to the kind of name calling you talked about in this post. I don’t feel like I’m missing any opportunities for growth when I drop those. 😉

  4. How do you handle disagreement in your home, church or work?

    At home I just say “yes, dear.” Intimacy is better than being right.

    At church, I used to tune out. There has always been something leadership disliked, or discounted about me. In my new church, the pastor and I hang out a few times a month. My heart and his seem to be very much in tune with what we feel God wants to do. Honestly, it’s a miracle how matched his prayer journal and mine are.

    At work, I am the boss, but I inherited one of the main guys. He gets on his little soap box, and I listen and then tell him what I am going to do. The problem, he doesn’t have a big picture. His issue, I don’t seem to have all the details he thinks I need to know.

    Do you try to insulate yourself from people who are wrong, or do you try to evaluate what they are saying?

    After many years, there are some folks I won’t listen to any longer. I have read a lot of books about Christianity, history, politics, and religion (not much for fiction). It seems most folks have an agenda they are trying to push – just watch Law & Order. I get worn out by the rhetoric which has been heavily spun. Even in the church. It is a fact that only 20% of Americans believe the Bible is more authoritative than their own feelings and thoughts. Those are places where I lose interest fast.

    How many disagreements do you give a pastor, a blog, a friend before you’ve had enough?

    It isn’t about disagreements for me. I have challenged leadership many times. I have been asked to leave a few churches because of my passion, but I would not have left on my own.

    I still read some blogs that I occasionally find narrow-minded and even offensive. I enjoy commenting. I even read a blog that is polar opposite of my Christian views, yet the writer and I have a good back-and-forth. I think it’s a little funny when he says “hmmmm….. I never thought of that.”

  5. How do you handle disagreement in your home, church or work? Do you try to insulate yourself from people who are wrong, or do you try to evaluate what they are saying?

    If I argued openly with everyone in my life who disagrees with me on the Big Issues, I’d never stop arguing and I’d have no friends and every professor I’ve ever had would probably stop letting me talk in class. I usually try to evaluate the situation. If it’s a case in which I really believe my opinion or belief needs to be defended, I’ll speak up. If it’s a circumstance in which my opposition would do no good and just stoke the fires of 1) awkwardness or 2) unnecessary tension I keep me mouth shut.
    When your belief is in the minority, it’s often important to remind those around you that those people they’re calling bigots/heathens/unamerican/homophobic are real people with real reasons for believing the way they do. We have to recognize the humanity in the other, the fact that (most of the time) they’re not sitting in stormy mansions plotting ways to destroy humanity.
    Since the majority of my friends hold very different beliefs than I do, I usually try first and foremost to understand why they think the way they do. That way, when I am insulated among common-minded friends and family, I avoid speaking hyperbolically about “the other” and even speak up for them on occasion. In turn, I often defend the conservative Christian piñata when acquaintances start the bashing party. It’s tricky (and exhausting) to know when to stick up for your values and when to keep quiet, but it’s worked for me so far.

  6. I’ve heard it said that if we totally agree with another person, one of us is superfluous.

    I love it when people make me think, but in the context of mutual respect. As a “don’t rock the boat” sort of personality, too vigorous discussion tends to send me running for the nearest cave.

    While I don’t always agree with you, your blog strikes the perfect (for me) balance between validating my opinions and challenging me to consider other views.

  7. It seems like today people expect you to be fired up about something, and most of the time I’m just too tired to care. I have a life–a job, a wife, and kids–and I find the latter two much more important than being right.

    For instance, the mosque at Ground Zero. Do I have an opinion? Absolutely? Will the mosque affect me in any way? More than likely not. Will my opinion change anything? Not at all.

    I just want to hang out with people and talk about good books and sports. I find disagreements about football teams much more amicable.

  8. You know what I’m sick and tired of? People disagreeing for the sake of being disagreeable. Sometimes I’ll run across a blog where a video will be posted and very little, if anything written to go along with it. It’s usually some footage of someone in church doing something completely embarrassing and ridiculous. What’s the point? The point, IMO, is to say, “Look how stupid this person is, and how smart and hip I am for pointing it out to you. Now, let’s everyone crucify them in the comments section, so you too can feel as superior as I am.”

    That’s just unloving and self-engrandizing. (Yeah, I’m a little grumpy this morning.)

  9. I gave up the disagreeing thing for dialogue a while back…people are more open to dialogue than debating.

  10. Disagreeable, disagreeable, disagreeable. Matt, you need some easier-to-chant words in your blog posts that I can use for my next social revolution.

    Anyway. I turn off the “news” and “debate” (quotes used intentionally) shows when people start shouting or talking over one another. That’s completely useless; why “debate” if you aren’t bothering to hear the other person’s views? How do you even know what you are debating on?

    However, being the rhetoric student that I am, I do appreciate a disagreement in which people can listen and share opinions without calling each other names. Unfortunately, the most recent time I saw that was a discussion between two church friends about clapping while singing, so it’s not like it was something that mattered (at least, not to me). :(

    I’m not sure how our culture shifted this direction, but I’m equally unsure of how to shift back a little bit. So, I guess this whole comment was completely useless. Happy Wednesday!

  11. Love this post Matt! You are right on about surrounding yourself with people that agree with everything you believe. I did that for a long time and I never really solidified what I believe.

    Now I try to expose myself to as many viewpoints as possible. Knowing what other people believe simply sharpens what I believe.

    At this point in my life, I find myself debating much less than before. I’ve found that as I become more secure with what I believe, I feel less inclined to try to prove it to others. I just try to live it.

  12. How do you handle disagreement in your home, church or work?

    It depends on the person, the disagreement, & the situation. My hubby & i don’t have many conflicts. When we do, we try to work it out with respect.

    We continued to attend/be members of a church for more than 2 years while struggling with what we were being “taught” each week. Over all, it wasn’t bad. It helped “sharpen” us & strengthen our faith. But when it went bad it went bad very quickly & now, having been away from it for 4 months, i find that it is “still in my head” as i listen to other pastors preach. I’m disturbed by this, but i am sure this will fade in time.

    Do you try to insulate yourself from people who are wrong, or do you try to evaluate what they are saying?

    Yes, in some ways, no in others. I recently had someone say some very unkind things of me at her blog (not my blog, to her credit). While i was very hurt, i also tried to look at what she said to see if there is validity there that i need to address or change my views. There was some truth to what she said, but nothing i can change. She simply didn’t like me/b>, & i can’t change that. Also, it made me question the motives of someone who would choose to post such things.

    When criticized, i do try to look at what is being said & to extract the truth from it. In fact, i tend to give too much import to folks who criticize me. I need to be more of a shrug & walk away person.

    I try to listen to the person’s argument to see if i do need to change my opinion/attitude on a certain issue. I tend to be a bit closed-minded on some issues.

    How many disagreements do you give a pastor, a blog, a friend before you’ve had enough?

    Again, situational. I do tend to walk away. I’ll withdraw & (with family) wait until they have reached a point they want to begin communicating again.

    I had many discussions with the above-mentioned church pastor over the 2 years. My hubby & i were trying not to burn bridges & not to create problems at the church. It was the pastor who invited us to leave.

    It depends on why i’m reading the blog. If, after several weeks of reading, i find that their info just doesn’t jive with my beliefs, i do tend to walk away because i’m not sure i want to continue spending time there. A few posts here & there where we don’t agree are good; they help me to see things from a different point of view. If we can’t agree on anything & every post is contrary to my beliefs, i don’t stay too long.

    It isn’t disagreement that usually will drive me from a blog. Rather the feeling that i just didn’t “connect” with the blogger. My reasons for blogging & reading blogs is to try to connect with folks.

    With a friend, it depends. I’m pretty loyal & will stick around for just about anything. If they are disloyal however, & disappear (or badmouth me), to return months or years later with a lame reason for the absence, i probably won’t trust them again. If they return with a heartache or some other reason that is legit, i’ll renew our friendship, although with deep disappointment that i couldn’t help them or be there for them.

    Darn, i tend to talk too much. This is a long answer.

  13. The amount to which I insulate myself depends on the purpose. Quite frankly, I started reading this blog because it’s a place of solace. I do not agree with a lot of what goes on in my church, and I often find myself more irritated than anything else, at the end of a sermon… which, when added in with the challenges of life, from other sources (school, work, friends, etc) makes me question my own sanity.

    I welcome opposing viewpoints, and am grateful to have gotten the opportunity to spend my undergrad and graduate school years in very open atmospheres. But, at the end of the day, it’s nice to see that *someone* has similar ideas. (So thank you.)

  14. I have my share of friends/acquaintances that we agree to disagree. There are many times my tongue is bleeding from biting it……but sometimes you just have to choose being kind over being right.

    (because of course I *am* right. 😉 )

  15. My world is populated with the most diverse group of people that could be possibly assembled. I think they might kill each other if they were all in the same room together. They are great though because they cause me to challenge my thinking on issues and to continue to really consider what it is I believe and why.

    How do you handle disagreement in your home, church or work?
    I do tend to keep trying the ongoing dialogue. I guess if that didn’t work we could go with a good Three Stooges slap fight. There are some things that are line in the sand issues and some that are more personal taste, different way of doing things issues. I’m more willing to agree to disagree on the non essentials… or to keep my mouth shut if I think real discussion would be fruitless.

    Do you try to insulate yourself from people who are wrong, or do you try to evaluate what they are saying?
    I’ve seen some amazing turnarounds in people’s lives… including mine. Sometimes those people I disagree with help me to see I’m not as much of a little miss smartypants as I thought I was.

    How many disagreements do you give a pastor, a blog, a friend before you’ve had enough?
    I don’t mind disagreements, but there are times when you can tell neither party is going to budge. If it gets too aggravating to read / discuss with that person then it’s time to move on. When it comes to churches / Pastors I’m much more likely to just move on quickly if we really aren’t on the same page ministry wise and are coming from different places. I appreciate the fact that there are many different kinds of ministry and not all of them are going to be a good fit for me.

  16. I’ve noticed that I’ll peacefully, patiently debate almost anything…(climate change, a new book, Obamacare) except Christianity. For some reason I’m total sucker for a good debate on the Apocrypha and other such things. I get so defensive about Biblical/theological arguments sometimes you’d think I thought I wrote the Bible and not God. God doesn’t need me getting so darn defensive about things that He owns. It’s not my job. And I need to remember that.

    However, not only do I want people in my Christian circle to agree with me, I also want to be accepted by them. It’s my Catch 22. So most of the time I just find it easier to keep my mouth shut if I happen to disagree with something, because I’m so afraid of being judged by other Christians. I’m pretty ashamed to admit that… (Can you tell I’ve had a few traumatizing experiences in this area?)

    I’ll only really “debate” something with someone if I’m close enough to them that I know they won’t think less of me for thinking a certain way. I won’t outwardly disagree with someone on a matter of Christian beliefs unless I trust them first. For example, having had very different Christian backgrounds, my boyfriend and I have had several very intense discussions in the last two years, all of which have ended well considering we’re still together. That doesn’t mean we ended up agreeing on everything; it just means that we have both learned to really evaluate how important the issue is relative to the matter of the saving power of Christ’s death. That tends to sober us up a bit if we get hung up on something that is for lack of a better word, stupid.

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