No one has mistaken our day as an age of powerful, rational discourse. The McLaughlin Group doesn’t usually evoke memories of Lincoln-Douglas, and Twittering about your favorite bagel from Panera isn’t exactly correspondence on the level of John and Abigail Adams.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. When has any debate in the last 150 years evoked memories of Lincoln-Douglas? And how is Twitter versus America’s most remarkable letter-writing first family a fair fight? But even if these comparisons are stacked, who would argue against the notion that we have defined discourse down? The discourse of the average educated adult conversing in the realm of ideas with another average educated adult is not, on average, very educated, let alone interesting.
So what’s the problem? It’s not that we are all suddenly morons. This is not going to be some elitist rant on “if only everyone could be smart like me and my friends.” Likewise, the problem is not the banality of the world around us. There is plenty to discuss, dissect, and disagree on. The problem is not even that television has robbed us of the ability to communicate in complete sentences (though it certainly hasn’t helped). The problem with our discourse—are you ready for this brilliant insight?—is that some people are jerks and some people are too nice.
Let’s start with the jerk problem. Sad but true, the internet was made for jerks. Every comment is more or less anonymous and every comment goes up whether the person has a clue or not. So we end up with a world of senseless blog fury where some anonymous clown with a name like “Spider86x” or “Cowgirl_B52” can rip you every which way but loose. Post something critical about Obama’s socks or point out that the Big East had more teams in the tournament than anyone else because there are, like, thirty-seven teams in the conference, and someone out there will curse the day you were born. Instead of responding to your arguments against inflationary monetary policy, “KeynesKid24” will mock your Blogger picture, lay down some none too subtle sexual innuendo, and call you a liar. Hell hath no fury like a scorned blogger with too much free time.
So the jerk problem is easy to see. But the nice problem can be just as bad. Think of all the work you have to do nowadays before you can disagree with someone. First, you have to do a lot of “I’m not saying . . . I’m just saying.” Then you have to reassure everyone that so-and-so is probably a great guy. Next, you make clear that you appreciate that he doesn’t kill people and his family seems sweet. And finally you admit that you could be wrong about everything anyway. All this to suggest that maybe, just maybe, God the Father is not best understood through the lens of Aunt Jemima.
A few months ago I was doing a phone interview for a new book I had coming out. Part way through the conversation, the gentlemen asked me why I had taken two pages to be critical of a popular Christian author. I explained that I thought he made some serious mistakes in theology, mistakes that can easily confuse laymen in the church. The man interviewing me then asked why I wrote some nice sentences about the author before critiquing him for two pages. Wasn’t I talking out of both sides of my mouth? I explained that I hoped not. I really meant what I said. I didn’t want to question the author’s sincerity; I trusted that his motives were good. To which my interviewer replied something like, “Don’t you think we should be able to disagree with others without so many caveats? It sounds phony.”
Well, it was too late to change what I had written, but I think the interviewer was right. Why should I assume that just because a Catholic might think I’m estranged from the true Church or a Baptist might think I’m sinning by sprinkling babies that they must also think I flick people off on my daily commute and secretly harbor violent thoughts toward puppies? Can’t I take a disagreement without taking it personally? Can’t I give a disagreement without fearing that I’ll be called nasty and unfair?
The problem with the nice problem is twofold. First, we are all victims or want to be victims. We argue emotions not ideas. We debate who has been hurt more or who was meaner, rather than who is right and who is wrong. If I can position myself as the one under attack and you as the attacker, then I’m more than halfway to winning in the court of public opinion. We all want to root for the underdogs. We all want nice guys to finish first.
Second, we are all proud. Because I’m proud I get hurt when people disagree with me strongly. Because I’m proud I feel the need to give thirteen qualifications before I make an argument, not usually because I’m a swell guy but because I love for people to love me and loathe for them to dislike or misunderstand me. Because I’m proud I hedge my criticisms so that I won’t have to publicly repent and recant when I go too far and get something wrong. Because we’re proud, protectors of self more than lovers of truth, we often don’t discuss things with candor or with verve.
And yet, look at the model provided by Jesus in the gospels. Half of his sayings beg for qualifications. Come on Jesus, give us a little “I’m not saying . . . I’m just saying” before you tell us to hate our parents (Luke 14:26). Issue a few caveats before you use the tragedy of the tower of Siloam to call people to repent of their sins (Luke 13:4“5). Tell us something about how the Pharisees really mean well before you lambast them with woes (Luke 11). Of course, Jesus was Jesus and we are not. But judging from the example of Paul, Peter, John, the Church Fathers and the Reformers, the point still stands. It is possible to be too nice, especially when eternal truth is at stake.
Here, then, a little advice for the tough guys: Save the big guns for the big issues. Don’t try to die on every hill; the hills are crowded already and you only have so many lives to lose. Be courteous wherever possible (Col. 4:6). Drop the rhetorical bombs and launch the satire missiles only as a last resort. Be patient with those who really want to understand (2 Tim. 2:25). And remember, it’s ok to have an unarticulated thought (Prov. 18:2).
And for the tender ones: Dare to not qualify. Don’t pad your criticisms with fluff praise (Gal. 1:10). If you have affirmations of substances, go for it. But don’t be a self-protective flatterer. Don’t be afraid to be misunderstood. Don’t soften a needed jab of logic. And when you get an ad hominen right hook, don’t take it personally (1 Cor. 4:3“4).
And for everyone: please, please argue with actual arguments. Don’t just emote or dismiss the other side with labels. Explain why your side makes more sense. Try more persuasion, less pouting (2 Cor. 5:11). Give reasons, not just reactions (Acts 18:19).
Here’s hoping against hope that thinking adults, Christians especially, can sustain meaningful discourse without resorting to name-calling or cowardly equivocation. Christ calls us to love, which is something entirely different than being a jerk or playing it safe. A.W. Tozer got it right: “The kingdom of God, has suffered a great deal of harm from fighters—men who would rather fight than pray; but the kingdom of God has also been done great harm by men who would rather be nice than right.”
Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. His recent books include Just Do Something: How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc.