January 20, 2020 (829 words)
Combativeness is not the best way to communicate. It does, however, have the advantage of getting the juices flowing and invigorating the participants, making them feel more alive in the heat of the moment.
It’s also a relatively easy stance to assume, requiring only a reflexive exchange of familiar talking points, put forth with decidedly more verve and volume than routine discussions of the weather or what’s for dinner.
And that’s the problem: Since being automatically combative takes comparatively little effort, and since human nature is to follow the path of least resistance, any attempt to “reach across the aisle” is doomed in advance, before we ever open our mouths.
That’s a shame, really, because most of us are just trying to figure things out as best we can.
When confronted with an opposing point of view I’ve found it helpful to remember this basic fact, and to keep in mind the person holding what I consider to be an oddball view generally means well.
No matter how passionate each of us may be in our beliefs, and how wrong-headed we think that other person is, very few of us are able to capture the whole of any truth.
This is not to suggest there is no such thing as objective truth, only that our ability to grasp it is far from perfect.
And it’s also not to suggest we shouldn’t keep trying to get it right, only that in most cases it’s a full-time job, a life-long project.
The goal, I think, is to be constantly working on one’s own “fuller” understanding of the truth, and not spend quite so much time denigrating someone else’s display of “partial” understanding.
Unless you happen to encounter an incredibly high level of belligerence, there is usually something to be learned from everyone we come in contact with – how a person chooses to frame an issue, how their mind works, the obstacle that is preventing them from breaking through and seeing the bigger picture, etc.
People we think are wrong should not be ostracized out of hand. Very few of these “others” set out to do evil. Most everyone is guilty mainly of “looking through a glass darkly.”
Now I know what you’re thinking: Some issues are non-negotiable, and there isn’t any common ground to be found, no matter how magnanimous one may start off trying to be.
How to avoid a sense of combativeness when confronted with the popular zeitgeist that sees liberation and emancipation in a sexual license we have always known is a repudiation of reason, and a form of enslavement to unfettered desire?
That defines progress and human flourishing so narrowly, as the endless pursuit of consumer acquisition that has left us all “the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an anti-culture from which many human goods have fled”?
Yes, some ideological divides are more like chasms, too broad and deep to span over with goodwill.
The rationalizations embedded in these false constructs have been developed over generations and will not be easily dismantled, no matter how composed or eloquent one might be in conversation.
In such cases one avoids combativeness simply by recognizing the scope of the task at hand, appreciating just how much the other person’s sense of their place in the world is tied up in their wayward views, and not expecting a miracle conversion.
But the better part of avoiding combativeness comes from something completely different: It comes from focusing on our own apostasy, rather than obsessing over someone else’s. It’s our own conversion that still needs to happen.
Despite the confidence and certainty we convey, and the mantle of moral superiority we wear so lightly, we are all struggling to one degree or another with stubbornness and pride and a willful ignorance. The truth we so admire and wish to embody is hard for others to see in us. It gets concealed by the countless minor (and sometimes not-so-minor) crimes against humanity we continue to commit.
Just professing to be a Christian, or born again, or a student of reason and a believer in self-control, is no salve. Being a true follower of Christ who acts in a rational manner and exhibits self-control is a much more difficult and demanding proposition.
We now have over two thousand years of data that documents an unfortunate discrepancy between stated intent and actual behavior on the part of the self-anointed elect. That’s twenty centuries of failure.
When we engage in these spirited ideological debates with family, friends, co-workers, or the occasional total stranger – sometimes good-naturedly, and sometimes not-so-good naturedly – we invariably act as though the angels are on our side, as we crusade for truth and justice.
But in our flawed state we are more often than not merely exposing a level of conflict that remains in our own soul, awaiting resolution. We are only expressing our lack of commitment to the very principles we claim to hold so close to our heart.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
January 20, 220