Sunday, August 22, 2010
In many secular and religious conversations, the question arises of what the best way to convert, or "de-convert", people is. Some people argue that being abrasive, even ruthlessly mocking your opponent's view, can sometimes offer a way to jolt the person out of her current mindset. Others counter that this strategy is more likely to further cement the person in her position, creating even more defensiveness.
I am open to the idea that there is a place for heated debate. I think when done respectfully, a passionate emotional exchange can be cathartic and can help us see past a stalemate in the exchange of ideas. I think there may even be a place for a bit of mockery - certainly satire can be a great eye-opener. What constitutes the difference between appropriate and inappropriate satire is another (very interesting) subject.
The flip side to the debate is that being nice to a person, and charitable towards her views, is the best strategy for changing her mind. Perhaps if one is kind, it will break through stereotypes about certain allegedly "militant" positions, and it will open the gate more widely for differing ideas to move through.
While all this is certainly important to discuss, I grow tired of the idea that the standard by which we should behave is set by how effective we are in changing the opinions of others. I think effective communication is invaluable, but I also think that being nice has value unto itself, apart from it's ability to change minds.
This value is certainly enjoyed by the object of a person's charitable attitude, but perhaps it is most enjoyed by the person being nice herself. When we are kind, we keep an open heart and mind, and we are able to achieve relationship with the object of our focus as she is, a real person, rather than seeing her as just a potential convert. The conversation itself becomes valuable, rather than just the outcome. Perhaps relationship trumps debate, but a quality debate can stay aware of this greater truth. I am not suggesting that a person should become a milquetoast. But surely one can be strong in her communication without sacrificing her compassion.
I realize that saying “relationship trumps debate” could potentially become one position in a debate itself, but without relationship there is no debate. Even if one is alone, thinking through arguments requires a relationship of different thoughts, and treating them all charitably to some extent is a requirement of clear thinking.
Here's an analogy to my overall point: I am a huge believer in music education (obviously!), and I like the argument that teaching kids music will help them at math. That is great. But I do not buy into the idea that the best defense for music education is that it will help us do better in another subject. I think music has value unto itself and should be preserved primarily for that reason. I could go into various reasons - music uses all parts of the brain simultaneously, requires teamwork, teaches us to give of ourselves when seeking to appreciate something, teaches us to seek and value beauty, etc, etc. but that's not the main point here - ;)
Music has value unto itself. It is not merely a means to another end. Niceness has value unto itself. It is not merely a clever debating tactic in the culture wars of our time.