In honor of Thanksgiving week and families sitting around tables and living rooms talking… I thought it would be fun to take a week off out normal topics and talk about how we talk about what we talk about!
I seem to run into the same odd glitch in almost any conversation I attempt to enter, and honestly, I find it a really unhelpful way to have a conversation.
It happens when we talk about economics or taxes or anything regarding money. If you hold up Bill Gates on one hand and the homeless guy on the other, the large majority of people (in the middle) are neglected and the conversation doesn’t go anywhere.
It happens when we talk about War and your grandfather who fought in World War II (who you deeply love) and the Pacifist at the other end of the spectrum. There is a whole series of considerations that get passed over and neglected as emotions quickly rise.
It happens in religious conversations – whether to topic is the Calvinist/Arminian debate, speaking in tongues, the Catholic sex abuse scandal, or Creation / Evolution. I seems to happens whenever abortion or homosexuality or gun control comes up.
So often these contentious issues seem to to have no “middle ground”, but my theory is that this is a direct result of the way that we frame the conversation. When we live and talk out at the extreme “ends” of the spectrum, we can roughly predict how almost all conversations will go on any contested issue.
Before I get into examples let me give what I think are the 3 clearest signs that you may be up against it.
- If there are only two options or if two options seems to dominate.
- If “Spectrum Language” is used but it is exclusively the highest end and the lowest end that are used. If the focus is on ‘the extremes’.
- If there is a long history (or track record) that is summarized by slogans, cliches, bumper-stickers or inflammatory insults. If the round and around nature of the argument discourages people to even enter in or if it finds them fatigued on the hope that there is any helpful solution whatsoever.
This is especially true if either the extreme of one end or the extreme of the other is used anecdotally to resist any change or to discount any innovation.
Here is my suggestion: Take any topic that seems to have this polarized nature to it and force yourself to come up with 4 or 5 groups or views on the subject.
Then take those groups and see if they might be (even roughly) chartable on a Bell Curve. Then – for the purpose of an initial conversation – we eliminate the upper 10% and the lowest 10%. We take them off the table so that we can address the big middle (or majority) to see if it changes the conversation at all.
Let’s start with an easy example: speaking in tongues.
Step One: come up with 4 or 5 categories. Obviously we have a) those think that if you are ‘saved’ you have to speak in tongues, b) those that think it is complete hogwash, c)those that believe it because it is in the Bible but have never experienced it, d) and those who think that it is one of the Gifts but that not everyone needs to do it.
Step Two: chart it (roughly) on a spectrum / bell curve. Those who insist on it for salvation will be the high-end and those who think it is hogwash will be the low end. Everyone else goes in the middle.
Step Three: mute the high-end and the low-end and see if there is a different conversation that happens when the majority talks without the vocal minorities who normally dominate the conversation.
Let me give some more examples.
When people try to talk about Finances, the Economy, and Taxes someone will often bring up Bill Gates (as the richest of the rich) and the homeless guy (as the poorest of the poor) – I find this wholly unhelpful. In fact – and this ironic – rarely are there any numbers used in a conversation about Money!! People say ‘the rich’ or ‘the poor’ and there is no dollar amount assigned. Who are the rich? Is that like assets over $500,000 or it those who make $250,000 a year or $100,000 a year.
My point is the the “the rich” as a category is unhelpful to any conversation that you might be having over a coffee table or in a living room. Let’s get some numbers on this baby! Then, let’s put it on a bell curve and for the purposes of constructive dialogue lets NOT talk about Bill Gates or the ‘homeless guy’ (an unhelpful caricature) as the high end and low end of the spectrum. Now, lets talk about taxes.
When people try to talk about War, the two extremes of ‘just’ war theory and pacifism are instantly invoked and then the conversation is immediately polarized and we are swept into the deep water, get in over our head immediately, tempers rise and intelligent exchange drops. I think that the overly simplistic understanding of WWII needs to be dropped from the conversation. Unless someone has looked at the role that the German Christians played and has read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison, I would ask you to not use “the Nazis” as example – especially if you think that “the Nazis” is a trump card that ends the conversation and you are automatically declared he winner.
I find is disconcerting that when it comes to war we make this same jump. There is not discussion about what constitutes a “Just” war and if the current conflicts that our country finds itself in meet those criteria. People shout “we were attacked” or “they hate us for our freedom” and off we go to invade two countries. Then if anyone asks about America’s military operations and para-military activity in those regions for the past 40 years they are somehow “dishonoring the 3000 people who lost their lives the day those towers fell” ? If someone points out that no “Just” cause was justified by the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush coalition (and groups like Haliburton)- somebody gets all up arms because ‘the young men and women who serve in our military are laying down their lives so that we can be free!’. This kind of blind faith and rote repetition of rhetoric and slogans that all American military activity is automatically virtuous by default – that is not helpful.
I get the feeling that the whole Pacifist at one end of the spectrum and Just War at the other end is failing us. I think that it would be helpful to sketch out 4 or 5 positions on war, put ‘the Military Industrial Complex and those that profit off of War’ up at one end and ‘those who oppose all war fundamentally’ at the other. Everyone else goes in the middle. Then mute the extremes at both ends and see if the conversation goes differently.
When people try to talk about salvation or some other christian idea and the Calvinist vs. Arminian are introduced the conversation takes on a round-and-round exhausting track that does not lead anywhere (or anywhere good). I think that it would be good to go through the exercise here too.
I could also talk about Homosexuality, Abortion, Gun control, Creation /Evolution and so many other things but I just wanted focus on the three topics of the Economy, War, and Salvation for this post.
So just in closing I wanted to pass along little indicators that the conversation may need this kind of intervention.
– When people are initially dismissive of any new suggestion because of one of the two extremes.
– When people will not acknowledge the large impact of an idea because they object to one of the possible exceptions.
– When people throw around big bad Titles, without qualifying the historical past or the nuanced present.
I have examples of all of this stuff – if you want any clarification just ask about a specific. I didn’t want to get off track with hundreds of examples – I just wanted to put out the Big Idea.
I thought that it would be a good idea to take a week off just focusing on Bible verses and debating Christians being violent and talk about how we talk about the things we talk about.