For the first 16 years of my life, my parents worked in Germany. On the ride home on the city bus after school, I sat with several of my friends and regularly carried on heated debates. Two of us, Anja and I, were conservative Christians. One of our favorite “discussion” topics was evolution versus creation. Generally, our conversation consisted of simple fun-spirited mockery, something along the lines of “Right, and then the mosquito crawled out of the ocean, and its legs got all big, like this, and suddenly—poof!—it was a lizard!”
It may seem obvious that such arguments persuaded only the like-minded. The other-minded were neither persuaded nor amused. Our arguments often upset one friend, Susi. She told us to stop fighting and we replied, “But we aren’t fighting!” with such ferocity that she retreated into a corner of her seat. Whatever we sounded like to her though, I never remember going home angry with Anja because of our argument. Once we got off the bus, the discussion was done for that day.
As a senior English major, I was a teacher’s assistant in a freshman writing class called “Writing to Change the World.” A more appropriate title would have been “The Art of Disagreeing,” because this was the course’s primary lesson. On the first day, Professor Heynen said, “If you write to change the world, there will be people who disagree with you. If you’re writing to change anything, you’ll make someone mad.” To help students prepare for their written arguments, he planned class sessions to involve debates whenever possible. “You may not argue in here on any subject on which you aren’t willing to hear the opposing point of view, and hear it courteously,” he told the class. “Also, if you ever really go at it with someone, you must promise to shake hands and make up after class.”
As I observed that class, I thought a lot about the concept of debate and disagreement in general. My family moved to Oregon from Germany when I was 16, right before the beginning of my junior year in high school. Even though I spoke the language, my first year in America was a culture shock. Among the things I didn’t understand about Americans was the way they argued—or rather, didn’t argue. Germans are fascinated with issues, debate and information. Americans are much more interested in relationships.
I have since come to appreciate Americans’ interest in people and feelings, and I realized that true friendship must include, on some level, caring about a person apart from his or her opinions. However, that first year, I was dismayed when even gently disagreeing with people made them stare at me as though I had spit in their face. Sitting in the college writing class five years later, I realized that I had almost completely given up issue-oriented argument somewhere along the line and was becoming rather American: I was starting to feel somewhat shocked and miffed myself if anyone ever blatantly disagreed with me.
As students debated in the classroom and grew gleefully argumentative, I began to miss having my own point of view heard and hearing someone else’s. A well-fought argument is constructive as it changes both participants. Neither may fully convince the other, but at the end, if they are listening to one another, both will go away with a broader view of the world.
Changing the world means changing people; if no one listens and no one is willing to be changed, nothing will happen. Writing to change the world requires a supply of people who are willing to be changed. It’s quite a demand: “Listen to me, hear me, even if I’m poking at the very foundation of your favorite convictions.” If I don’t want to be a hypocrite, this means that I, too, must stay willing to be changed by other people’s writing, their ideas, their arguments. It doesn’t mean I always have to agree, or that every controversial piece of writing has to make me do a 180. But it does mean (and this is where I started feeling uncomfortable) that I must not begin with the fixed idea that no matter what this person says, he’s wrong.
If I believe in changing the world by writing, if I read a book by a self-proclaimed atheist who claims God can’t exist, then I must hear him out before I disagree. If there are good arguments in the book, I must admit that they are good; and if I don’t have a rebuttal for each one, I must admit that too. Then perhaps I’ll start my search again to discover God.
It seems to me that writing to change the world is what RELEVANT is all about. Not all the pieces submitted by RELEVANT freelancers aim to change the world in the same way. We write about buying Rollerblades and about prayer, about cooking and music, voting, smoking and going to war. Compile a list of all RELEVANT’s articles, and you’ll have a colorful collection indeed. Still, aren’t we all writing for the same reason? In the big things and the little things of life, we try to give light to what matters. We want to help one another be true to our goals, whether they be aims to exercise and eat right, to be responsible citizens of our country and the world, to make wise relationship choices or to keep from despairing when it doesn’t feel like Jesus is living in our hearts at all.
We are on the same team here, and that should show both in the tone of our writing and the tone of the comments we make on other people’s writing. We’re not all Democrats (or all Republicans); but even if we were, we’d hardly agree on everything. That doesn’t mean RELEVANT can’t still be a safe place for exploring new ideas. We may not always agree on what’s salty and what’s sweet, but let’s not dishonor our God by treating one another with careless disrespect. It would be a sad state if RELEVANT writers grew fearful of controversy where suddenly everyone agreed wholeheartedly with everything everyone wrote. The curious readers and writers would go elsewhere; those who want to think thoughts, see visions and hear callings would go away in search for a place where the debate is still heated but respectful.
Let’s be the safe place. By all means, let’s disagree. But let’s stay civil. Let’s not settle for mudslinging because we’re too frightened to take someone else’s thoughts seriously, or because we’re too lazy to take the time for a thoughtful response. Let’s argue; let’s throw in every piece of evidence we can find. Let’s not be afraid to choose a side and defend it, but let’s not become too self-righteous to listen to what the other side has to say.
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