If I were a self-disciplined person, I would be preparing my lessons right now and preparing the presentation I’m supposed to give to new faculty tomorrow afternoon. But when we were courting, my wife, then a graduate student in educational testing, made me take a personality test. She was shocked at how low I scored on self-discipline, and things haven’t changed. So, instead of preparing for work tomorrow, I’m going writing about something that has been bothering me for a while. I’ll figure out the lessons and the presentation later, meaning a long night.
Over the last several months it seems to me that there has been a turn for the worse in the comments at Times and Seasons, a change in overall tone, a turn toward more and more bitterness, cynicism, anger, and self-righteousness. I understand those comments. They are almost always in response to a question that the commenter takes very seriously and should take very seriously, something like abortion or same-sex marriage. Surely we can understand the anger of someone confronted by another who says “So what was wrong with shooting those children in Beslan? or crashing those planes into the towers?”It is not difficult to understand anger in response to those on the wrong side of important moral questions, and many of the angry comments respond to those who, to the commenter, certainly seem to be on the wrong side.
It is also easy to understand how much more quickly sarcastic, angry, or bitter comments come from a keyboard when one is sitting in front of a computer monitor than from a mouth when people are talking face-to-face. One virtue of e-mail, discussion lists, comment boards, blogs, and so on, is that they allow people who might otherwise keep silent to speak. But they also allow us to say things that we ought not to say and would not say if we were more thoughtful. The anonymity of the internet is both a blessing and a curse, and I think we’e lately seen more of the curse than the blessing.
The Book of Mormon gives a variety of interlocking reasons for the downfall of the Nephites, but among them is that of contention. Contention is frequently mentioned in conjunction with war, and sometimes as its cause. Alma 51:2 goes so far as to say that contentions “had been hitherto the cause of all their destruction” (my italics).
In spite of the Book of Mormon’ teaching, for many years I have been unsympathetic to a view that I often find among Church members: they fear all disagreement because they are afraid that disagreement and contention are the same, and “the spirit of contention is of the devil,” to quote Elder McConkie’s heading to 3 Nephi 11, a good paraphrase of 3 Nephi 11:29. As I say in my class syllabi:
To treat another with respect is not to refuse to disagree with that person. In fact, I believe that not making your case carefully, persuasively, and strongly when you disagree with someone is deeply disrespectful, to the point of dishonesty. Such behavior presumes that the other person is not worth the trouble or that he or she is incapable of understanding. Not to give one’s honest judgment in a context where that opinion is called for is a form of lying. Not to argue for what you believe to be right when such arguments are appropriate (as in a class or a public debate or as a counselor to a Church leader) is a lack of integrity. Thus, disagreement and disrespect are not synonyms. One can agree or disagree respectfully or disrespectfully. And part of respect is knowing when it is time to quit arguing: when you have made your point and you are sure that you have explained it clearly, not when the other person agrees with you. (The bishop or president may hear you and still not agree; it is time to stop making your case.) Arguments are not clubs for beating others into submission. In philosophy, you must take a position, which means also that you must sometimes disagree. But you must do so with respect for both the person and the position that you disagree with.
So I’ve long assumed that the fear of contention was really only a fear of disagreement. I’ve prided myself on my ability to disagree, and sometimes looked down my nose at those who are afraid to do so.
However, after the last several months, I have a new appreciation for why people are worried that disagreement will lead to contention: it is difficult for people to disagree about important issues without that disagreement quickly becoming contentious. And once contention has entered, even unimportant issues easily become causes for contention: I read so-and-so’s comment, remembering the contention he and I had earlier over whether the entry into the war in Iraq was justified, and immediately I remember our argument and the contention is reawakened. This time he may only be disagreeing with my claim that milk chocolate is to be avoided by all people of good taste, but my emotions tell me that in this too, he is wrong, and he is wrong for the same reason he was wrong before, namely he holds immoral beliefs–so I respond accordingly.
Many things can contribute to contention. My certitude in my own beliefs may contribute to my rush into it: I am right and that I am right is perfectly obvious, so anyone who disagrees with me and mine must be either naive (unlikely if he or she is taking part in this blog), stupid, or evil (and I remember from my introduction to logic that “or” in this kind of sentence is always inclusive: “perhaps all three,” “or at least both of the last two” I add).
If I confuse my political doctrines with my religious beliefs, something easy to do since they overlap in a number of areas, I will find it difficult not to assume that those who disagree with me are evil and, therefore, properly to be contended against. And it is especially difficult for me to think they are not evil if they are members of the Church, as I am, and recognize the Prophet, as I do. As Peter Winch says, “What divides men most bitterly is usually not far distant from something which unites them. Otherwise, why should these be conflicts rather than simply differences?” (“Darwin, Genesis and Contradiction,” Trying to Make Sense 138).
If I do not read the posts or comments of others with what Augustine calls “the principle of charity,” remembering what we share and assuming as long as possible that the other person is a person of integrity, saying what she honestly thinks and has good reason (even if wrong reasons) to think, then I am likely to misunderstand what she said. It will be easier for me to respond contentiously. In fact, it may seem to be required.
Or I may desire to protect the Church from heresy and evil–especially the heresy and evil of those within, requiring me to point it out loudly and clearly whenever I encounter it. Because the danger is so immediate and apparent, I tell myself that I cannot wait for a president or bishop to deal with it. I have to do so now and in the most uncertain terms.
Whatever the reasons for contention, however, it is evil. I ought to contend with no one unless there is no escape from doing so. That seems to me to be the teaching of the Book of Mormon as well as the Doctrine and Covenants. Even when I cannot escape contention, I ought to look for a way out that will preserve my contender’s self-respect and freedom. I see that lesson, too, in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.
We are obliged not to contend with our brothers and sisters because we are obliged to deal with them in love. I ought not to respond to my wife by accusing her of stupidity when she disagrees. I ought not to treat my children with the kind of disdain expressed in some of the comments on this blog. Why? Because I love them and such behaviors contradict that love. That is the rule commanded by God and the life commended by him: love of all because all are our brothers and sisters.
But what if I do not yet have what it takes to deal with everyone that way? Then at least I should deal with my fellow saints that way. The Word of Wisdom is “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints” (D&C 89:1). Surely even the weakest of us can also at least deal with our brothers and sisters in the Church without contention. We may disagree. If we are talking about an important topic for which there is, as yet, no revelatory answer, we almost certainly will. But we need not, must not, make ourselves enemies because of those differences.
If we cannot discuss our ideas and our differences, including our political differences, as brothers and sisters in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as people who love each other because he loves us, then we ought to abandon Times and Seasons, for it will only contribute to our downfall. John says, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:19). If Times and Seasons helps make us liars because it allows us to respond to our Latter-day Saint brothers and sisters with hatred, antipathy, condescension, anger, bitterness, cynicism, or any of the other emotions we find it so tempting to be seduced by, then out of a desire for our own salvation we ought to flee it.
I accepted the invitation to be part of Times and Seasons because the spirit I felt here was one of friendship. The permanent bloggers do not all agree about very many things political, and some of our disagreements are strong, but we all agree about the Gospel. That agreement in the Gospel has allowed us to continue, and I believe–I hope–it has something to do with the growth the blog has had. If that can once again be the dominant spirit in the posts and comments, I will count it a blessing to be part of this effort. On the other hand, if that spirit of friendship even in disagreement, of respect and love because we are Latter-day Saints together, isn’t what defines this blog, then I want nothing to do with it and neither should you.
1. Ask, “How will this sound to those who read it?” Reading out loud helps give me a feel for the answer to that question.
2. I should remember, however, that my readers are not reading out loud and they may not be disposed to read what I’ve written with the dulcet voice that I imagined as I wrote. If I try reading my post or comment in a harsh voice, I may hear why someone else will be upset with what I’ve said.
3. Consider whether I would speak to my mother or father with the tone I’ve used.
4. Ask, “Does this further the discussion or attempt to put a stop to it?” If the latter, why?
5. Ask, “Does my response to the post or comment in question involve a judgment of that person to which I am not entitled?”
6. As I read, ask myself, “How can I understand this in a way that makes sense?” If it doesn’t make sense, there’s a good chance that I’ve not understood it. I don’t have to agree with it, but since most people make sense most of the time, I should take the fact that it doesn’t make sense to me as a sign that I probably didn’t understand it.
7. If what I say runs counter to LDS received wisdom or to the LDS norm, I must take special care to make my faithfulness clear and to explain how my position fits with my LDS faith.
8. If what I say is what “everyone” who is LDS says, then I probably ought to ask myself whether I’m saying what is true and needed here–both absolutely possible–or I am just repeating “what one says in these circumstances.”
9. Whenever I disagree with someone, whether about politics or chocolate, I should ask, “How is she or he likely to respond?” My comments ought to be designed to further the conversation and to make it better, not to make a brother or sister angry, to score debating points, to humiliate the person I’m addressing, or . . . .
10. If a friend of mine has posted something uncivil, as a friend, I ought to gently speak to him or her about that post.
King Benjamin reminds us that there is no end of making rules (Mosiah 4:29), so Times and Seasons cannot post a list of rules which, if obeyed, will prevent all contention. Not even a list of rules of thumb nor a list of practical suggestions can do that. But we know when our comments are not in a spirit of love and friendship, and we ought never to post except in that spirit, even if we disagree strongly. Strong disagreements between loved ones, disagreements that do not signal the destruction of love and friendship in spite of their strength, are possible. When we disagree, those ought to be the kinds of disagreements we have.