Dialoguing Through Deep Difference

A baseline cultural narrative in western society is that everyone should be free to express his or her authentic self, however, matters of faith and morality should be kept private. 

But this is a self-refuting statement, because there's nothing more foundational (or authentic) to who we are than our answers to the "big questions" of life:

  • What should human life in the world look like? (What's the nature and purpose of human beings?)
  • What has knocked things off balance? (What is wrong with the world?)
  • What needs to be done to restore the balance and make it right? (What's the solution?)

Every single person–whether agnostic, atheist, or religious–has working answers to these questions, all of which must be taken on faith, and none of which are self-evident nor can be empirically proven.

And how one answers these questions (as no one can function in the world without doing so) will fundamentally affect every action and thought. There is no avoiding this.*

This is crucial to understand as our nation becomes increasingly pluralistic. As frequent eruptions and white-hot remarks in the public square demonstrate, we have a long way to go in learning how to live and engage with those whom we deeply differ. 

This isn't an article on how to solve that problem, nor do I have the wisdom to provide an exhaustive solution if I tried, but here are two steps:

1. Be wary of moralizing your position

It's easy to take your working theory for the answers to the big questions, and moralize them, making yourself feel superior to those who hold a different view. 

But when you do this, it's the first step toward separating from the other side and caricaturing them, and can even spiral into anger and marginalization. 

Folks on the Right tend to say, "It's the immoral and the non-religious ones who are the problem with society, and oh, of course we're the moral ones."

Folks on the Left tend to say, "It's the close-minded and regressive individuals who are the problem with society, and oh, of course we're the open-minded ones."

Both are equally prideful and exclusive. The former group is acting just as unloving and immoral as the people they accuse of being immoral, and the latter group is acting just as exclusive and self-righteous as the people they accuse of being self-righteous. It's the attitude of, "Look at how much better we are than those who think they're better than others."

Are there injustices in society that need to be made right? Of course. 

But as soon as we take the things we're the most proud of (ex. "I'm an open-minded person," or "I'm a moral person", or "I'm a smart person") and use those to bolster our sense of self-esteem, this inevitably makes us feel comparatively wise or good, so then we can't help but look down on those who don't have what we have, or don't act in the way we act. 

You can't be angry toward someone unless you feel superior to them, and so the moralizing --> superiority sequence is a deadly hindrance to civilly engaging with "the different." 

2. Acknowledge and converse through differences, rather than ignore them

We're told in our society that tolerance is the way to love people. While I realize I may be lighting a wick attached to a powder keg with what I'm about to say, I must say I respectfully disagree. 

Tolerance, at least how popularly defined, is "Just let people be who they want to be, and don't address your root differences." In other words, "I won't tell you how to live, and you don't tell me how to live."

First, I do believe this definition came about for good reasons: countless individuals have been persecuted and marginalized because others in a position of power forced their views on them in an oppressive manner. This is unacceptable. 

However, we've taken this too far in that it's now viewed as a crime to disagree with anyone. But this is an impossible conclusion to hold. We all come to our positions through a variety of rational, cultural, and emotional factors, and since we no longer live in isolated tribes, there are going to be many differences between individuals. We can't just hum loudly and look away from the things that divide us. 

A critical step toward being able to face a dissenting opinion without going bonkers is to avoid the lethal mistake of conflating disagreement with hatred. Has disagreement lead to hatred before? Yes. Especially if you violate Principle #1.

But disagreement and hatred are not the same. One of the issues we're facing is that folks blow up as soon as they hear someone disagree with them, without slowing down long enough to hear them out and seek to genuinely understand where they're coming from. 

Therefore, tolerance, at least in the popular sense of the term, is not love.  It's selfishness. It's saying, "I don't want to actually engage in your life, nor have you engage in mine. I don't want to have difficult conversations with you." 

Refusing to acknowledge and converse through differences is also dangerous because, among other things, it can cause bitterness or superiority to simmer under the surface, which will explode once the right circumstances come along. 

So, the better question isn't "How can we best tolerate each other?", but "How can we best engage with others across differences in the most loving and respectful way possible?"

In an increasingly pluralistic culture, we must learn how to listen long and think carefully before speaking, and engage with those whom we deeply differ in a manner that's loving, yet not fearful of addressing areas of disagreement.  This is one of the only ways we can have a peaceful, coexisting society where everyone can freely contribute in mutual respect of one another, regardless of belief, secular or otherwise. 

A final word

Since I'm coming at this from a Christian perspective, I want to encourage my Christian friends with something: remember that you're not saved because you're better than anyone. In fact, the very foundation of our faith is that we weren't saved because of any good thing we did or merited. It was all an act of sheer grace by God through Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, to ever think you are better or wiser than someone, or to moralize any of your attributes, is to live in utter disharmony with what you say you believe. Since Christ came down to you when you were an enemy of his, the very least you can do is seek to love and serve those who are different from you, as he first loved and served you. 


*While I am a large supporter of separation of church and state, it is a mistake to think that anyone, no matter how secular or irreligious, can enter the public square using "pure, neutral reason" while leaving value-laden faith commitments at home. If that were the case, then no one could say or act on much of anything, because the overarching narrative within which we couch our positions is not something that can be proven by science or reason alone.