Avoiding Unnecessary Antagonism

It is no secret that American politics is beset by a polarization we have not seen in some time. This phenomenon makes it difficult for those in positions of responsibility to move our country forward, but it also eats away at the ties which bind citizens to one another. Indeed, America’s religious discourse has also been afflicted by these same processes of disenfranchisement, radicalization, and conflict.

Clearly, there needs to be a change. As Christians, we understand there are some things worth fighting for, but we also ought to understand our first priority is not the political, economic, or even the moral battles of our day. We are engaged in a war for the souls of our neighbors, and, in order to fight that war effectively, we need to maintain as healthy a body politic as possible.

The Trinity Forum has been working on this problem for several years now. Here are just a few insights from their most recent online conversations which can help us avoid unnecessary antagonismboth within our churches and among our neighbors.

Differentiating Between Values and Conclusions

Diana Glyer is a professor at Azusa Pacific University who specializes in C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the rest of the Inklings. Her conversation with Cherie Harder (president of the Trinity Forum) might seem like an odd place to find insight into our current moment as Americans (and American Christians), but Glyer points out Lewis and his friends were not monolithic in their view of the world or in their approach to their craft. Indeed, she contends they succeeded in part because they were so different from one another, at least in some ways.

How was this possible? Among other things, Glyer contends they knew the difference between “values” and “conclusions,” and she further argues this is a distinction often lost in our current political and religious climate. 

When we confuse values with conclusions, every disagreement becomes a referendum

on the moral rectitudeor even the genuine humanityof those involved in the conflict. When we are able to see, however, that some of our disagreements are not actually fights over values, but are really fights over how those values should work themselves out in the policies and practices which guide our lives, we are more able to listen to one another empathetically and talk with one another fruitfully. We gain insightrather than angst, anguish, or animosityfrom our interactions with others, and that insight both strengthens our bonds with one another and makes our efforts at creating a more just and beneficent society more effective.

Avoiding Manufactured Outrage

David French is an attorney, author, and political activist. His conversation at the Trinity Forum was explicitly about how objectively falsifiable conspiracy theories take root in our minds, our hearts, our communities, and our churches. It is a conversation which is full of wonderful insights, but I just want to pull out one of them for us to examinethe difference between “earned mistrust” or “earned anger” on the one hand and “manufactured distrust” or “manufactured anger” on the other.

What French points outand what a lot of people do not seem to realizeis that there is a big market for what we will call manufactured outrage. That is not to say there aren’t reasons to be outraged with how certain governmental, religious, or academic institutions behave. French helpfully reminds us we sometimes ought to be angry about what is going on in our country, our communities, our churches, and our souls. But we need to remember these instances are, oftentimes, the exception rather than the rule. But there are people who want to convince us otherwise in order to line their own pockets with cash or to promote their own agendas in the areas of politics or religion.

Manufactured outrage is harmful to our public discourseboth in politics and religionfor at least two reasons. First, it distorts reality by convincing us the sins of our opponents are “emblematic” (quoting French) of who they are, whereas our sins are merely outliers which should not be held against us. Second, it creates a policy-making environment where every problem has to be framed as a crisis or it will not receive the attention it deserves. This process not only accentuates the divisions which already exist in our body politic and our churches (since no one likes “the boy who cried wolf”), but it also impedes our ability to act decisively when a genuine crisis arises.

Resisting Affective Polarization

Jonathan Haidt is a social and moral psychologist who teaches at New York University. Peter Wehner is a political activist and former Republican speechwriter. Their conversation, too, was about polarization in American politics. And like the discussion with David French, their talk was full of fruitful insights.

Perhaps the most important of these was the observation that much of our polarization is “affective” rather than actual. What Haidt and Wehner mean is, while there are certainly differences between Americans in what they actually believe on specific issues, there are also feelings and perceptions about those differences which may not correspond with reality.

Indeed, French pointed out in his talk that the average Republican is not as conservative as most Democrats think, and the average Democrat is not as liberal as most Republicans think. Haidt and Wehner report the actual differences in what people think on specific issues have not changed substantially in the last thirty years. What has changed is our attitudes towards those with whom we disagree. Those have become dramatically more negative over time.

One of the ways we can avoid the trap of affective polarization is to be more connected with actual human beings who disagree with us. Wehner observes social media tends to make all of our interactions “performative.” That is, we tend to use the conversations we have with others as fodder for the cultivation of our public image. And if we do this, we can surmise that our political opponents are doing it, too.

Haidt suggests this means we can no longer have discussions over contentious issues in large groups. Somebody in the group is going to see the debate as an opportunity to promote their own brand and will, therefore, sabotage the whole endeavor by bullying people into pre-formed molds and by reporting everything that is said on their favorite social media platform. 

Instead, he suggests we must have conversations about contentious issues in private, and there must be clearly expressed rules about what content canand cannotbe shared with the outside world. That way, people will be freer to express what they really think and to do so with humility and nuance.

Challenging Times

We live in difficult times, and we have some difficult words we as Christians need to share with our society. If we are going to earn a hearing for the hard things we must say, then we would do well to avoid unnecessary antagonism. We need to keep in mind some of the things we disagree over are really about the differing conclusions we have drawn from the available data, and not about underlying value differences. 

We need to avoid resorting to outrage as our first option when there is a disagreement, and we need to be aware that others will try to get us worked up in order to facilitate their own agenda. And we need to be aware of the ways that our own conduct, and that of others, creates the illusion that polarization is worse than it actually is. Doing these things will help us have the hard conversations we need to have as a society. More importantly, doing these things will help us love our neighbor rather than hate them. Both of these things are desperately needed–in the public square and in the church.

 

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