Dear Members and Friends,
I have learned that the things that divide us are far less important than those that connect us.
-Rachel Naomi Remen, 21st century
How do you embrace disagreements? Are you the type that thrives on dissension and looks for people you can debate and hopefully change their mind and show them the error of their ways through the power of your persuasive arguments? Or are you the type who prefers to keep everything calm and peaceful, avoiding any topic that might lead to disagreement which you would rather not deal with? After all, far too many people seem to want to fight to the death to prove that they are right … and how totally wrong you are!
A colleague recently shared a story about two of her relatives who had a debate, online, involving the NFL and taking the knee. To one of them, it represents one thing, to the other, something else, and both men are equally passionate about the issue. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, and could have led to escalation, epithets thrown and months of not speaking to each other. Yet they somehow kept their discussion civil, and capped it off by having dueling fundraisers, one for the Salvation Army and the other for the Southern Poverty Law Center. If only the rest of our society could be like this!
Part of our struggle with disagreement begins with the manner with which we express our positions, ideas, and emotions. When Colin Kaepernick decided to not stand for the National Anthem as a form of social protest he told the press “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Now many people in the US also object to racial profiling and prejudice. They support freedom of speech. They endorse every American’s right to protest. But at the same time, they don’t approve of “taking the knee.” They see it as unpatriotic. Many people feel that protest is okay, as long as you don’t do it in a way that I find offensive.
On the other hand, when President Trump expressed his view of the NFL players who were exercising their right to protest by “taking a knee” he allowed his passion and emotions to get the better of him and he called the players “sons of bitches” and proclaimed they should all be fired. Some people who did not like the NFL protest disliked even more the rude and crude way in which the President responded to it.
But if we are not just going to continuing devolving into our separate factions, retreating into our separate corners of the world, and gathering with only like-minded people, we will run into disagreements. And the truth is, disagreements are actually healthy for us and are needed to help us grow. So let me share some ideas for how we might embrace disagreements in a positive way that will be healthy and growth-enhancing rather than destructive and debilitating. (I found these ideas in a blog-post by Kathryn Drury Wagner, a writer and editor based in Los Angeles.)
- Try the flip side: In a new study, conducted by the College of Business at Virginia Tech University, Professor Ann-Sophie Chaxel looked at cognitive consistency. This is the tendency human beings have to process information in ways that confirm our preexisting beliefs. To break out of that tendency, Chaxel says, we need to deliberately seek out people who have opposing views and expose ourselves to beliefs that are different from our own. Otherwise we think we are making choices, but we really are not.
- But, but… Yes, dipping into an opposing worldview like this requires Nonjudgmental Listening. That means no interruptions, no jumping in to rebut. Approach this exercise as if it were an adventure, an expedition: you are exploring the mind jungle of that other viewpoint. Enter the encounter with a heightened level of curiosity. You are not there to change anything but rather to explore, to expose yourself, and to discover and learn. Use the trusty phrases “uh-huh.” “How about that.” “Help me understand that.” “I see.” Just observe and listen.
- Be humble: For all that we think we know about a subject or a person, we generally only see the little iceberg tip poking out of the water. Acknowledge there is usually a lot more to the story and approach them like a journalist seeking to discover the “rest of the story.”
- Value disagreement: General George S. Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” We don’t need to all think alike. We do, however, need to treat each other with respect and kindness.
If we can seek ways to engage with those with whom we disagree in a positive fashion, with curiosity, respect, and openness to them as a person, we may just discover as author Rachel Remen did that the things which connect us are far more important than those things that divide us.
See you in church.
R. Steven Hudder
Pastor, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ
Palmetto Bay, Florida