Rules of Debate

‘Tis the season for debates – politics, guns, Islam, Santa Claus, etc. I would offer four simple suggestions for all of your holiday debates and arguments this year:

1. Stop arguing over social media.

Especially in regards to some of those serious debates concerning Muslims, ISIS, guns, immigration, the refugees, etc., social media arguments often result in more harm than good. And given the somewhat complex nature of these issues, most arguments are horribly oversimplified. Now this does not exclude any reasonable post of your argument or opinion on these issues; but as soon as someone responds with the itch for a lengthy back-and-forth debate, I would invite them to coffee or a phone conversation. In my experience, relational discussions are much more beneficial than artificial discussions over social media. If we really love the person on the other end of the conversation, if we really care about what they have to say and really care about them understanding our points graciously and clearly, then we will not be so quick to formulate a shutdown argument to silence them.

2. Be slow to form an opinion.

We have to be thoughtful people. Technological advancement and globalization has exposed us to more and more opinions, but in the same motion it has quickened us to form them. What we fail to realize is that those quick-formed opinions are multi-layered and contextually informed, and in response we are often urged to locate the best-worded construction of our own opinion in order to combat the frenzy. In reality, we fuel the frenzy and spew opinions apart from relationship. We habitually choose the opinion of our favorite politician, theologian, friend, family member, or whoever we cherish as influential in our life, and then we claim it and share it, finding the best arguments to support our presupposition. Ironically, in our desire to “join the conversation,” we typically silence it by feeding the battle of the monologues and ostracizing those who broadcast a different opinion.

3. Actually read and listen to the opposing view.

Because we are mindlessly trained to quickly form opinions, we spend more time justifying our position than actually arriving at our position. Again, these are complex issues; not everything is so easily seen as black and white. There is another side of the story. There are people who have different experiences with these issues, live in a different context, function with different cultural ideologies, and were brought up believing differently. We live in a pluralistic age. However, this does not mean that there is not one right opinion among many wrong opinions; but it does mean that many people are content with attractive opinions rather than correct opinions. Pluralism has cultivated a culture where opinions are judged more by their attractiveness than their truthfulness. So when we discuss these issues, the responsible thing to do is to actually understand the opposition’s position because it is injected with their values – those things they find attractive – and the more we can identify and discuss their values, the more we can go deeper in our conversation about meaning and purpose.

4. Seek a balanced position.

We desire concrete answers to these questions, because concrete answers are most comfortable, easier to package in a Facebook post or a tweet, and make it easier to criticize others who differ from the concrete truth. But the simple fact is that these are very complex issues, and with that comes complex answers. As a student of theology and the Bible, I often wrestle with complex questions. What I have found most helpful in navigating these questions is what I like to call “The Dance Between the Extremes.” Most of my early college years were spent studying the strict and robust system of reformed theology, and most of my later college years were spent studying the poetic and philosophical system of existential theology. When it came to my graduate studies, I found myself dancing back and forth between the two; but the most interesting realization was that in the dance I found myself clinging to those unshakable principles at the center of it all – the gospel. It was only upon my experiences with the extremes that I was able be pulled and pushed towards the center and establish a more balanced approach. It permitted me the grace to look past nuances and seek clarification of the things that were most important and valuable to the discussions at hand. That experience taught me that most issues function with a similar spectrum, where the two extremes inflate the nuances, highlighting them so that we can identify those nuances, where we can then consequently identify the crux of the issue en route to a more balanced position. When we function with a balanced position in these discussions, it propagates gentleness and respect, but it also equips us to assist others in navigating towards a more balanced position.

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