Sunday, August 22, 2010

Being Nice

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.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly that niceness, like music in your analogy, has value apart from anything else. I think it's probably very difficult for anyone completely focused on converting or "de-converting" people to sustain a functional level of niceness because his/her primary goal is not always to understand the other person, but to bring them over to another way of thinking. However, this might get us into defining being nice vs. being kind. Trying to get people to switch tribes, camps, granfalloons-- whatever you wanna call them-- is an unsavory business. You're better off making friends and seeing where the journey takes you. Oh man... I sounded like a hippie just then.

  2. Shane,

    Excellent points man. I do value kindness over niceness on the whole. Kindness seems like niceness in action. I realize that the word "nice" can also mean "flaky" to some people. I hope I defined what I meant decently enough.

    I will switch to your granfalloon at any time, you hippie!

  3. There's a drum circle / feelings discussion in our future.

  4. Hey, great essay. Unfortunately it puts me in a very difficult position. Let me explain.

    My belief system is pretty rigid. What I mean by this is that my belief system is formed around an absolute. This absolute can only be expressed as a metaphor, but it is absolute nonetheless. The metaphor I’ll use here today is train tracks.

    We are all on train tracks heading a certain direction. Every set of tracks is 100% heading off a cliff to a fiery crash, except for the one set of tracks that is not. Fortunately, I happen to be on the right set of tracks.

    Now, I can be “nice” and discuss trivial matters with people on tracks near mine; topics such as science, politics, religion, employment, or whatever. However, can I really, truly be considered nice since I full well know that they are on a track that is headed for a certain crash. Would it not be nicer for me to discuss the fact that they are soon to be in extreme terror and pain?

    But here is the difficulty. Since most of these people are in denial about the final destination of their track, they will surely tell me I am not being nice when I interrupt their conversation about their kids, or the welfare of starving humans, or whatever, and inform them that they are headed for certain doom unless they switch tracks to the same track that I travel. On top of that, telling me that I am wrong about knowing that I am on the right track is what I consider to be exactly the opposite of nice. What a dilemma!

    So would it be nicer for me to condescendingly discuss trivial matters as if they are important (and all matters are trivial compared to train tracks) when I know that doing so will only pass precious time as half of this relationship is headed toward doom, or would it be nicer for me to forgo all pretending interest in trivial matters and place doing whatever it takes to get another to switch tracks at the forefront?

  5. Skyhook,

    Ha ha ha! That's a great point.

    I think that many Christians deal with the doctrine of Hell in different ways. Some adopt the attitude of trusting God. They believe in hell, but recognize that there is ultimately not too much THEY can do to convince someone.

    But yes, many Christians act nice or as if they take differing beliefs seriously, in order to put their points forward and that is it. Many atheists do the exact same thing, although as you point out indirectly, they do not feel there are eternal consequences.

    The broader point in your comment, I think, is how nice can we treat someone when there is a lot on the line? Can people differing on abortion have a charitable discussion? What if you're having a conversation with someone who is arguing for racism? Or arguing for a position that would immediately affect you or your family in an adverse way?

    It's difficult, but I think that compassion, charitable understanding and a heated exchange can still exist together.

  6. Would it help if the being nice was aimed towards the people in the conversation while anything goes towards the ideas being discussed? Does being nice regarding racism (for example) yield this intrinsic value we are talking about? I think in some ways we can separate out being nice to people while allowing “mean” criticisms of ideas.

    But we run into problems when we come across ideas that have found a niche anchoring to the personality itself. Some ideas tend to define who a person is, and in criticizing that idea, we inadvertently are not nice to the individual (at least from the individual’s POV). Apparently ‘nice’ is in the eye of the beholder.

  7. I think what constitutes being "nice" is a great topic, but mostly the scope of this post concerns what the point of being nice is, however we define that. Is it a debate tactic or does it offer legitimate benefits besides that?

    You are so right that separating ideas and person is difficult, because our self-identities require some sort of ideas. So even the craziest idea has some sort of currency because it is part of a person.

    But yes, heated debate is certainly appropriate at times, I think.

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  9. (had to add more) :)

    My beliefs are absolute as well. Yet one reason why many mainstream Christians would disagree with ME is because of this:

    I don't believe my goal, as a Christian, is to convert anyone.
    Yes, I was raised in church & there was constant "training" for us to follow The Great Commission ("Go ye into the world...").
    I just can't buy it. How is convincing someone to think JUST LIKE ME loving?
    Yes, if I know you fairly well, I will intervene if you are killing yourself with drugs or causing harm to someone in your life. I do have a spine about things that are evil.
    If I am close to you & have established serious trust, I will discuss things with you that are close to my heart even if we in no way agree on the topic broached. I will try to have an open mind when doing so, realizing that my (and hopefully your) opinions are malleable and ever-progressing.

    But, I feel just living my life, being "nice," and just trying to pattern my heart after the divine pattern that I've studied & have chosen to follow is truly the only way you influence another.

    Not that influence is my goal.... :)

  10. Skyhook, i am curious how often the train analogy you mentioned has actually come to play in your life. I am having a hard time personally thinking of any time in my life where there was no doubt that i was right and that the others were doomed for not seeing what I saw. So, i would be interested in hearing an actually situation in you or someone you knows life that was parallel to the train analogy. The analogy only has value to me if it is applicable, and I am not convinced that it is, but I could be wrong. I am sitting here trying to think of a "real life" example that I have experienced that is like the train analogy you mentioned, and I can't come up with anything. anyway, just curious what you can come up with.

  11. Lisa,

    That sounds nice - it seems to incorporate a faith in God's work into the mix.

    Another thought I had, along the lines of Skyhook's comment, was from a sermon on Hell by the pastor of Lifechurch.

    He quoted an atheist who said something like, "I don't believe in hell, but if I did, even if all of Britain were covered in broken glass, I would cross the island on my bare knees to try to save one person from such a fate."

    Craig agreed. Or at least said he did, because he was cracking jokes about a minute later into the sermon, which I thought ruined his (supposed) intended effect.

  12. You know, I shared my thoughts on this with my husband, and his first question to me was whether or not I believed in Hell.

    We got into a firm yet friendly debate...aha, to illustrate the point precisely!...and I honestly walked away confused.

    I suppose the "creed" I've been living by must be questioned. If I am going to claim Christianity, does that mean I must encompass the command to go into the world & share the Gospel? As in, convert others?

    Goes back to the point that I try to stay open-minded. However, issues such as these are what confuse (& end up frustrating) me about religion in the first place.

    I've seen legalistic, dogmatic religion. I've NO interest. I've always seen God's handiwork in everyday life multiple times. I believe in Him 100%.

    But this topic leaves me perplexed. Ah, to have simple, child-like faith! Wish I could...

  13. edit: I've *also* seen God's...

    PS: Steven, thank you for challenging us to think with your essays. Though these matters tend to make my head swim with questions/doubts/concerns...I'd like to think they help refine and structure my belief systems.

  14. I think there are a lot of problems with the idea of an everlasting Hell created by a loving God. I find the idea of Christian Universalism very attractive - that eventually all will be joined with God, but we have the freedom to choose how long and hard that process is.

    The Bible is filled with mixed messages. One minute people will be cast into eternal darkness, then later, at the end of time, "God will be all in all." This is just the absolute tip of the iceberg.

    A great book with a variety of points of view on Hell is "Universal Salvation: the current debate" Thomas Talbot is the principal essayist, but includes essays from Calvinists, Freewill Liberatarians, all sorts of different Christian viewpoints. My friend Eric Reitan has a fantastic essay in the book about how people freely choosing hell for themselves is an incoherent idea with true freewill.

    Your husband might be really interested as well, since he was a seminary student.

  15. John,

    I am sure you have seen versions of the train analogy play out in matters like politics. Haven’t you felt that others were so wrong it was not even funny? Perhaps it is the healthcare debate, or the war on drugs, or denying rights to homosexual couples, or preparing for retirement by putting all your money in one stock, or whatever. These are all little versions of the train analogy. And instead of literal doom, they may face doom in terms of morality, freedom, or anything else really. Such is the utility of analogy.

    Do you think that the train analogy applies to martyrs? You know of many instances where someone has given their life for a cause. And in some of these instances, people have given their life, as well as taken many others, to spread a message that s/he views as much greater or important. These are all examples that could be told through the train analogy.

    In small ways, we all can relate to the train tracks. In big ways, it seems that you have to look for a little bit more extreme individual. There is no shortage of people out there that believe unless you do specifically this, then you will certainly receive that.