If you’re a teacher of any sort, you know how disruptive a couple of talkative or rude students can be, especially when you’re trying to get a discussion going.
In an effort to regain control, you flash a forced smile in the direction of the goof-offs. You pause and wait until they’re finished before you continue. You have a chat with them after class and ask them to be a little more attentive next time. And then after another day or two of rudeness, and despairing that your more subtle techniques have failed, you lose patience and let them have it, right in the middle of class.
And rightly so. They deserve it. They’re ruining the learning experience for most everyone around them, and showing little respect for you and the effort and thought you’ve put into the subject at hand. You don’t even have to yell: just a few choice words will vanquish them.
There’s just one problem. Your tongue-lashing shuts not only them up, but everyone else too. Now no one will talk. You’ve killed whatever good feeling was in the room–killed it more than those students were killing it. Now you’re the one ruining the learning experience for everyone. You were right, those kids deserved it. But you were wrong as well. Wrong in how you handled it. Wrong in your tone, and delivery. Wrong in your meta message, which was (whether you meant to say so or not) that you probably don’t care enough about the offenders to figure out an approach which not only solves the problem but allows the offenders to feel that they still matter to you. And thus, just plain wrong.
Obviously you don’t have to be a teacher to be familiar with the paradox of being right and yet wrong. It can happen in various settings, including of course your home. If you’re a parent, you often know that the substance of what you’re saying to your child is right, yet somehow you can still feel lousy, even wrong, after winning a particular battle. Usually because of how you won it. Or because you looked at it in the context of winning and losing. An unkind tone or sarcasm or impatience or arbitrary reliance on authority says (whether you mean it to or not) that you really don’t care about the child as much as your words suggest.
Why wouldn’t the paradox apply to blogs as well, or any other sort of public forum for discussion, especially those with religious claims? 3 Nephi 11:28 gives a good clue that there was a lot of well-meant but ill-natured discussing going on over doctrine even before blogging was invented, and verses 29 and 30 clarify it as “disputing” and its companion “contention.” I infer from this and from experience that the problem doesn’t lie in discussing doctrine but in disputing it; not in disagreeing but in contending. Good-willed discussion can push you along and stretch you and thus help you to understand. Disputing brings in ill will and rigidity, and makes the discussion more about winning an argument than advancing understanding. Disputing puts the need to be right about a given doctrine above the doctrine that matters most: love and respect for one another. I Corinthians 13 applies here too: we can have all the insight in the world, all the one-upsmanship in the world, but if there’s no charity, or good will in the discussion, then it’s empty and vain, and therefore wrong.
Thus in a religious sense any discussion is partly about the subject at hand, but mostly it’s about the conduct of the discussion itself.
The subjects or doctrines under discussion matter, but they matter less than how we treat each other while discussing. If there’s ill will after a discussion or exchange, then the discussion was a failure. Even if we think we won, or were right, we were ultimately wrong.
I’m hardly perfect at the art of good-willed discussion (I hope none of my relatives read this post, for instance, lest they burst out laughing). That’s why I’m thinking about it here before I get blogging on such crucial subjects as the virtue of white shirts. I succumb often to the temptation of supposing that what I have to say is so important and convincing and obviously true that I’m going to say it bluntly at all costs, including the cost of good will with someone else, because the world needs to hear it, because a person just has to stand up for what’s right. And then I’m proven wrong again. My stated message turns out once more to be less consequential than my unstated meta message.
Instead of standing up and dividing, maybe I should have done some sitting down and reconciling. With my students, or kids, or fellow bloggers.
Good-willed discussion makes everything a lot more pleasant. Ironically, it also better promotes understanding of substantive issues: for when ill will takes over, the substantive issue becomes secondary to the desire to show someone up. And the results are predictable: calling names, questioning motives, and distorting the arguments and evidence from the other side, all in the name of winning and defending an unbending position.
I’m sure I’m not saying anything new to readers here. There’s already a lot of good-willed discussion at T&S, and any adult is familiar with the right-but-wrong paradox. But I want to plaster this ideal on my forehead before plunging in, lest I get a little snippity in discussing how many angels can stand on the head of a pin, or its modern equivalents. If a boxing referee can say “Let’s keep it clean” before two guys go out and bludgeon each other, then we who enter the discussion ring should be able to commence with a similar mantra, and actually mean it. At least I tell myself.