Saturday, August 4, 2012

Join the conversation in a respectful way, please

I would be exaggerating if I called it “hate mail”, but a recent email from a reader was definitely on the nasty side.  The reader was emailing me in response to a column I had written on using inclusive language to speak about God. After quoting from the creation of man in the Book of Genesis, the writer of the email commanded me to give up my opinions. While I thought this was rather imperious of him, and demonstrated a false notion of moral superiority, his email illustrated one of the points of my column: “androcentric language for God perpetuates the stereotype of male superiority”.  

I appreciate reader feedback, even when a reader disagrees with my point of view. I enjoy hearing different opinions; they make me think about my own.  Generally, when readers contact me with an opinion, they are interested in sharing ideas in a respectful manner. They know what I think from reading my column, and I get to know what they think from reading their emails. 

Promoting conversation through mutual respect
"Global Communication"
The respectful exchange of ideas promotes conversation. Through conversation, we moderate our attitudes, and reevaluate our opinions.  Through conversation, we develop a broader understanding of issues, of the world, and of our place in the world.

The media often invites us to “join the conversation”; we can post our thoughts online and comment on the opinions of others. Frequently, in these online “conversations”, people express intolerance for the opinions of others, and comments are sarcastic and insulting. The public discourse that social media seeks to encourage often ends up being little more than people spouting off in an attempt to foist their views on others.

If I learned anything from raising teenagers, the quickest way to shut down communication is to claim moral superiority on a position, and adopt a “my way or the highway” attitude.  A consistent application of the “my way or the highway” style of communication effectively limits one’s own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth, and does nothing to create meaningful dialogue.

Meaningful conversation requires that we remain open to worldviews, beliefs and opinions that differ from our own.   When we are willing to listen and consider different points of view, conversation becomes a tool that promotes individual growth, and fosters the advancement of human society.  Communication occurs when persons exchange views with civility and tolerance.

Debate or dialogue?
An example of what I consider to be a good conversation took place earlier this year at Oxford University. Oxford hosted what was billed as a debate between Richard Dawkins, often described as the world’s most famous atheist, and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who described himself as agnostic, chaired the discussion.

The topic for the event was "The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin."  Given the disparity between their beliefs, and the strength of their convictions, I expected to see a political style debate between Dawkins and Williams. I expected a contest, and as with all contests, I expected someone to emerge as the winner. Of course, given my own belief in God, I was hoping that the Archbishop would be more the persuasive of the two.

My expectations and hope, however, never materialized.  The event was less of a debate, and more of a conversation. Neither party attempted to prove the other wrong, or to persuade the other with scientific argument or Christian apologetics, respectively. Instead, the men exchanged ideas, and during the exchange they found points of agreement. Notably absent from the demeanor of the participants was any sense of moral superiority. Both appeared to be conscious of their own limitations, and the limitations of human understanding when confronted with the secrets of science, and the mysteries of faith.  The men, and the audience, shared a genuine desire to learn. The mutual respect and humility of the participants engendered an intellectually and spiritually stimulating conversation that came to its conclusion all too quickly. 

"Meeting Room"
The best conversations continue long after the participants have gone home and the room has fallen silent.  Unlike online conversations where comments are “closed” and removed, and unlike emails that can be quickly deleted, we archive ideas from good conversations in our mind. The best conversations are useful tools that aid us in our quest for understanding and meaning; they influence us in ways that sarcasm, intolerance, and just plain nastiness never will.

Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos
"Global Communication" by digitalart
"Meeting Room" by sixninepixels 

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