A paraphrased conversation from a spring meeting of the Rider Writer’s Group:
A: (reading from her essay) “If you believe (this), you’re wrong…”
(She continued until she had read the entire essay. Several comments were then made in response to the essay)
Me: I admire how you point-blank called the reader out – “You’re wrong!” I almost never say anything that direct, even if I feel really strongly about it.
P: Why not?!
Me: I’m not sure. I don’t want to create bad feelings or alienate people. But I also don’t want to get into a verbal war over comments on my blog. (I then gave an example of an unpublished piece that takes a stand on a polarizing topic.)
M: Well, I think you should go for it. You can always turn comments off if it gets too bad.
P: Yeah! Just go for it!
A: Besides, it’s okay for people to disagree.
Wait! What?! It’s okay for people to disagree? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this?
Now, I’m not talking about conversational debate. I grew up surrounded by and participating in family debates (mostly over morning coffee) about everything from the relative merits of a particular restaurant, to politics and educational policy, to “what is art?” While some of these topics may have been things that we cared about, they weren’t actually very personal. In this kind of debate, my faith, energy, and soul aren’t really invested. Instead, the verbosity is more about having a wide-ranging conversation, taking a position for the fun of having to defend it or capitulate to a better-articulated argument.
Real, substantive, disagreement is much more difficult to navigate. First, for many of us, disagreement equals conflict and, therefore, must be avoided at all costs. More than that, though, we avoid deep disagreement because it makes us feel vulnerable. When I clearly state what I believe from the core of who I am, I risk rejection. Sometimes, in the heat of argument, that rejection feels like annihilation.
The paradox inherent in this dilemma is clearly stated by Parker Palmer:
“Instead of telling our valuable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other about our opinions, ideas, and beliefs rather than about our lives. Academic culture blesses this practice by insisting that the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel. There is less sense of community among intellectuals than in the most ‘primitive’ society of storytellers.” Parker Palmer
In today’s world, as we navigate the major issues of our time: climate change, economic disparity, discrimination and inequality, US women’s domination of world soccer (ok, just checking that you’re paying attention) it is more vital than ever that we practice the moral courage of speaking truth. This doesn’t only mean sharing divergent opinions, it means learning to confront our own fear of vulnerability to say what is in our hearts – regardless of whether others will agree. We can’t let fear of conflict prevent us from talking about the very real decisions with which we are faced as a community.
And speaking of community: until we find a way to include disparate voices in one conversation, we will never create true community. Instead, we will continue to create closed circles of like-minded individuals who agree with each other in ever louder voices in an attempt to drown-out the voices of the closed-circle groups living near us.
I could go on haranguing on this topic in an abstract way, but then I’m guilty of the very thing I’m arguing against. So how am I practicing the moral courage of truth in my own life? Well, in some ways I’m not. For example, I haven’t published that blog piece on a polarizing topic I spoke of with my writer’s group. In other ways, I’m working on it. First, I’m listening to myself speak – noting when I take refuge in abstractions or, worse, untruths. This is a very humbling thing to do, as I discover just how often I slide over or glide around inconvenient or uncomfortable truths. Second, I’m evaluating situations and people in which and with whom it is less daunting to speak my truth. As in so many things that take courage in life, starting with lesser risks builds strength for greater risk-taking. Third, I’m evaluating those areas that need my voice and practicing speaking my truth there, even if I know others will disagree. Even if I know that speaking will reveal fundamentally divergent views between myself and people I love or respect. Because my friend and fellow writer A. is correct: it’s ok for people to disagree.
Not only is it ok, it is actually possible to continue to love and respect those with whom we disagree. In fact, one could argue that true love and respect are only possible between those who have learned to speak divergent truths AND continue in relationship with one another. When one of my loved ones came out as lesbian to a family member, she indicated her fear that it might harm the relationship. The reply she received was, “Maybe now we can really have a relationship.” Because truth is essential to creating “right relationship”, whether between individuals or within communities. In fact, real community only thrives in environments that learn to hold a diversity of views without erupting into discord and interpersonal violence. I know no other way to create this than one person, one courageous truth, one relationship at a time.