Archive for September, 2013

How to Disagree

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 18th 2013.)

People’s Parable: “The Argument Clinic” by Monty Python

Aria: “Let the Goodness In” by Tret Fure

Sermon: “How to Disagree”

I’d like to begin my sermon with a very quick show of hands.  Please raise your hand if you’ve ever disagreed with somebody else.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that we have all experienced disagreements in our lives.  Many of them were mild differences of opinion that didn’t really matter.  Some of them led to arguments that hurt feelings and changed relationships, at least for a while.  And a few of them led to greater conflicts that — in the absence of any other way forward — ended relationships.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of “how to disagree” for a while now.  It’s relevant to all of our personal lives, of course, but it’s particularly relevant in the context of a religious community such as ours that makes the breathtakingly stunning — and thoroughly counter-cultural — claim that in spite of differences in belief and differences in opinion we can nonetheless be in community with one another.  After all, we don’t have to pay for a session at an argument clinic to find somebody who’s going to disagree with us on something.  When it does happen, though, it’d be nice to think there was something constructive we could do instead of sinking to the lowest level of flinging “Yes, it is.” and “No, it isn’t.” back and forth, even though that’s apparently the approach to national governance that Congress thinks is best.

We can, of course, try to avoid disagreement altogether, and it’s actually not too hard to do that these days.  After all, whatever your position on almost any issue, you can choose to tune into the radio and television stations that seem to endorse similar positions.  And you can do that even more effectively on-line, frequenting those websites and blogs and following those people on Facebook and Twitter whose ideas and values match your own.

It’s natural, of course, to be most comfortable around people with worldviews and opinions that are similar to our own, but it’s not healthy — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually — to be entirely surrounded by people who agree with us.  It’s to live in a fantasyland that drifts further and further away from reality, floating off in an ideological bubble that will inevitably burst with severe if not devastating consequences for those inside it.  It feels good to be safe and secure in that bubble, right up until the moment when reality intrudes and we realize that our safety and security were only illusions.  No matter how good it feels to be Emperor, none of us wants to realize, in the end, that we actually have no clothes.

So I’m convinced that, given our Unitarian Universalist declaration of our commitments to diversity and pluralism, we have an obligation to do better ourselves, and to take what we learn here and help the wider world do better, too.  After all, knowing how to disagree is essential for the healthy functioning of a congregation.  Knowing how to disagree means that we understand that the democratic process does not mean that we’ll agree all the time but rather hinges on our willingness to remain in loving covenant no matter our disagreements.  Those holding minority opinions have the right to be heard expressing those opinions, for example, but once a decision has been made, they also have the right to be just as much valued members of the community as they were before.

And that’s important not only for the health of the people within these walls, but for how we relate to — and hope to make a difference in — the world beyond our walls.  As a warning against the temptations of trivial disagreements, for instance, Unitarian Universalist minister Dick Gilbert relates the traditional anecdote that “while [the] revolution was raging in St. Petersburg in 1917, a convocation of the Russian Orthodox Church was in session a few blocks away, engaged in bitter debate over what color vestments their priests should wear.”  That’s a pretty egregious example, but there are a few similar stories from Unitarian Universalist history, too.

So I’ve collected a few guidelines for how to disagree.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about social justice issues, where it’s definitely not acceptable to merely agree to disagree with people promoting homophobia or restrictions on women’s reproductive rights or environmental exploitation.  Rather, I’m talking about the majority of disagreements that most of us encounter here or at home or at work as we go about our daily lives.  And my emphasis will be on staying in relationship with one another in spite of our differences.

Now my default position here comes from the claim that, as human beings, our identities are defined by our relationships.  I don’t just mean our ‘intimate’ relationships, of course, or family relationships, but also varying degrees of friendship, from the people with whom we work and serve and volunteer to the people we encounter at the supermarket or the gas station or the airport.  Thanks to the Universalist side of our tradition, I take as an article of faith that it is possible to be in ‘right’ relationship with anyone.  But there does appear to be an exception, and, since I continually try to come to terms with the fact that I am limited and mortal, I’ve had to accept that that’s okay.

Here’s why there’s an exception — or perhaps it’d be better to call it an escape clause.

Researchers at Baruch College in New York recently published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that showed that “not only is ignoring obnoxious people more effective at silencing them than actually speaking to them or engaging them in discussion, it’s healthier and less mentally draining on you as well.”  As one reporter titled her article about the research, “Ostracism worthwhile when dealing with jerks”.  To quickly summarize the results, the participants in the study were each asked to either interact with or ignore another person for a few minutes and then perform a task requiring mental effort.  If the other person was likeable and engaging, the participants who interacted did better at the task.  But if the other person was rude and offensive, the participants who used the silent treatment did better.

Now this study really just quantifies something we already knew: being around good people makes us better, while being around jerks makes us worse.  Still, it has some implications for us.  First, yes, removing ourselves from interactions with obnoxious people is a tool of self-preservation.  Second, we need to be aware of when we’re becoming rude and offensive ourselves, or we’ll deserve the silent treatment, too.  But third, and this is where Universalist faith re-asserts itself in the face of our human limits and frailties, we must leave space for the person who used to be obnoxious.  It may not be possible to always be in right relationship, but we can remain open to trying, to the possibility of being in right relationship.  After all, sometimes we’re the ones being jerks, and we should always be able to hope that, once we snap out of it and shape up, there’ll be a place for us in community again.

I know there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I’ve been the rude and offensive person.  Looking back I usually realize it was because I was under stress or grieving or, less acceptably, because I was tired or hungry.  In most cases I was able to apologize afterwards and right relationship was restored.  Recognizing my own failings, I try to be more understanding when it’s the other person who seems obnoxious, silently offering them compassion for whatever trials they might be encountering in their own life.  It might not improve their behavior toward me, but it helps prevent the deterioration of my behavior toward them.  As author — and creator of Peter Pan — J. M. Barrie put it, “Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.”

Another piece of wise advice comes to us from psychologist, author and dating coach Mark Mason.  At the top of his list of “Six Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal” is keeping a scorecard of the other person’s past mistakes for the sole purpose of dredging them up as ammunition in the current disagreement.  (Related to that is the use of words like “always” and “never” to make sweeping generalizations about the other person’s misbehavior.)  The scorecard is toxic because each person ends up spending more time reopening old wounds to prove that they are less wrong than in finding the right answer to the current situation.  Rather, says Mason, unless there’s clearly some recurring problem, each issue should be dealt with on its own terms.

While it’s important to avoid making disagreements personal, such as in terms of the other person’s past and unrelated actions, sometimes it’s important to acknowledge, at least to yourself, that a disagreement is personal, at least in that it really has nothing to do with what the disagreement is supposedly about.  You’ve heard — or at least heard of — the cliché, usually in the context of break-ups, “It’s not you; it’s me.”  Well, no, sometimes it really is them.  It’s not helpful to point that out, of course.  But when another person has an unexpectedly strong disagreement or a difference of opinion that just seems to come out of nowhere or a piece of what seems like overly critical feedback, it may simply be best to listen to them, to reassure them that you’ve heard what they had to say, and to move on.  If it helps, you can say to yourself the mantra that I’ve heard Unitarian Universalist minister and Mountain Desert District Executive Nancy Bowen claim as an alternative meaning of “WTF”: Wasn’t that fascinating!

Another piece of wisdom I gained from Nancy is the importance of asking if the object of the disagreement is worth it.  Is your goal in disagreeing worth what it will cost?  Or in Nancy’s words, “Is this a ditch I’m willing to die in?”  And that’s a great question because it forces you to actually identify your goal, to figure out what you’re trying to achieve by disagreeing.

After all, when my wife and I are at the supermarket and talking about buying some ice-cream, we may disagree about what flavor to buy.  But if I want chocolate and she wants strawberry, it’s not a relationship disaster.  Perhaps there’s a “buy one, get one free” deal that would let us each get our preferred flavor without spending a lot.  Or perhaps we could just make do with Neapolitan.  There doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all argument over which flavor of ice-cream is better, something that is entirely subjective anyway, and the only purpose of our disagreeing is to express personal preferences that can readily be satisfied.

Sometimes when we stop and think about why we’re disagreeing, we realize it’s really about not much more than, well, which flavor of ice-cream we prefer.  About ten years ago, I was in an on-going argument with my boss — who was the professor of the research group I was in — about the experiments I was doing.  I was having the hardest time showing him that I was actually getting the results he was expecting, and it was stressing me out to the point that I developed my first bout of sinusitis and would break out into uncontrollable coughing whenever I saw him coming.  After redoing the experiments, and rebuilding the equipment, again and again, for weeks and then months, I finally realized that it came down to the colors I was using to plot my data.  He preferred a different color scale and he couldn’t see what I saw in the one I usually used.  Well, that was easy to resolve.  What’s more, once I’d used his preferred colors to show him my results, he was fine with me publishing them using my preferred colors.

Knowing what it is we’re trying to achieve — and being honest about it with ourselves — makes all the difference.  Judith Martin, who is better known as Miss Manners, recently answered a letter from someone who was trying to get to a train but was stuck on the stairs behind someone who, as it turned out, was texting.  It was raining and it was rush hour, so the traveler asked if the texter would mind finishing at the bottom of the stairs.  Now the texter was holding up a lot of people who were also getting wet, so the traveler was surprised when the texter got angry and responded rudely.  Miss Manners answered the letter by first taking the traveler to task for wrapping the incident in selfless virtue.  After all, the problem for the traveler wasn’t really that someone else was texting, perhaps even for very important reasons, or that other people were getting wet.  The problem for the traveler was that the traveler couldn’t get past.  Being honest about that, Miss Manners pointed out, would have led to the traveler simply saying something like “I’m sorry, but can I get by?” rather than committing the first “rudeness” of the situation by criticizing the texter’s actions.  (This is actually one of the central lessons of Non-Violent or Compassionate Communication, something that two UUFP members are teaching us about this Fall.)

So, to recap: know your purpose in disagreeing; recognize when it’s not about you; avoid making disagreements personal; deal with each issue on its own terms; assume the other person means as at least as well as you do; walk away from obnoxious behavior, but allow for that behavior to change; and, beware the temptations of the trivial, because you might miss the revolution.

These are, of course, guidelines, not rules.  Human relationships being what they are, there are no simple, technical solutions.  And whatever anybody says, it’s always easier said than done.  All of us — you; me; even, I’d be prepared to bet, Miss Manners — have to work at it.  But it’s worth it, because here’s the thing about disagreement: it’s going to happen.  For a congregation or any other community to be healthy does not mean that there are no disagreements.  In fact, nearly the opposite is true: if there are never any disagreements, then that’s reflective of decadence, apathy and lack of purpose, which indicates only a worthless form of health.  Rather, a community that is dynamic, vibrant and mission-centered will encounter disagreements amongst reasonable, well-meaning and honest people, and the health of that community is measured by how well those disagreements are held, in love, by the community as a whole.

Two hundred years ago, this was part of the message of the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou.  Riding on horseback between churches to preach the good news of universal salvation, Ballou drew out the implications of his theology for what it means for how we treat one another in life.  “If we agree in love,” he said, “there is no disagreement that can do us any injury.”  It’s love, and what we love, that holds together a community, a congregation, a church, love that transcends differences of belief and differences of opinion, love that holds us together no matter our disagreements over the color of our vestments or our choices of vocabulary.  But Ballou went on: “if we do not [agree in love], no other agreement can do us any good.”  In other words, love matters most and everything else, if it is not in service to love, is for naught.

So here’s my final guideline for how to disagree.  Ask yourself what you love, and what the person with whom you are disagreeing loves.  Look at how that love holds you, both of you, in the space of disagreement.  Think about what you have in common, the values you share, and the goals to which you are working together.  Remember that no matter what, for this brief moment in time, might appear to be keeping you apart, you are held in love.

So may it be.

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