Conversations about differing beliefs, be they political, social or religious, can get touchy. That’s just life. But when you’re conversing with friends, most of those mean-spirited cheap shots get thrown out.
I’m blessed to have those kinds of friends. In college, my friends were mostly work-study coworkers at a tutoring center, and fellow Human Development and Psychology classmates. In other words, I was lucky to be surrounded by a bunch of nerds — intelligent, analytical people who had the emotional and intellectual depth to be open-minded and compassionate in discussions about life, love, politics and deities, even when I wasn’t.
I can also say that my most recent talks with a childhood friend, who is still a strong Christian (I’m a lapsed Christian turned Deist turned Atheist) have all been respectful, considering our vastly opposite opinions. And the friends who view relationships and career differently than me are not pointing fingers, calling me names, or pushing me to make some ridiculous either-or case for my existence.
However, go to any Internet message board, and most of those nice, smart, even-tempered human beings seem to have fled. Either that, or they don’t have access to a computer.
Why is being correct more important than being all-around right?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to prove a point. Hell, we’d be crazy to accept all ideas as equal, and that would be a completely counterproductive way of life. If you don’t believe me, try having a discussion with someone who tries to walk this tightrope, and watch them struggle mentally and philosophically as they try not to offend a single soul and yet produce a coherent line of reasoning for any meaningful topic. It’s impossible to be without bias or opinion, and that’s just part of being human.
When Nelson Mandela died, I went online and watched some documentaries on him, just to pay respect and learn a bit more about a man who (no one can deny) had a profound impact on his society and historical outcomes. He wasn’t blameless, because no one is, and there are many who could find fault with some of his decisions or viewpoints, but that wasn’t what stood out to me. What stood out to me was his sense of right and wrong, his courage and graciousness in the face of adversity and persecution, and his patient insistence upon change. So I typed a comment along the lines of, “We lost a great man,” or some other such benign compliment.
Within hours, someone had replied that I was a brainwashed white liberal, dumber than shit, etc. Another man had replied to that person that they were wrong, and Mandela was a great man. Another person had commented that the insulting poster must be in league with the devil. And so on, and so forth.
If I’d been riding the bus with all these people, I doubt we would be having the same type of interaction. In fact, I suspect we might have had a decent conversation, wherein the man would disagree with me, and I’d say something like, “No one’s perfect. I’m just saying South Africa after Mandela seemed an improvement. But that’s my opinion, obviously. What’s yours?” And maybe we would all go crazy, tear the seats from the floors, and bash each other’s heads in, but I doubt it. It’s only when we’re given the relative anonymity or at least the comfort of distance that most people feel comfortable being overtly rude, degrading and egotistical as they type away on their laptops, while wearing oversized shirts and sweatpants.
But what about college campuses? Have you ever tried to express an idea that differs from the norm while in a classroom, surrounded by people vehemently opposed to your position? Rather than the discussion getting heated, it gets shut down entirely.
In one class, a panel of teens and young adults came in to talk to us in connection with a local sexual rights and education advocacy group, focused on helping young mothers and fathers navigate the struggles of an unexpected pregnancy. The panel participants were asked numerous questions by the organizers of the group, as well as taking questions from us. A friend of mine was shocked when the leaders asked them questions like, “When did you lose your virginity?” and “Do you still know the father of your child?”
She was visibly upset, and during the next class, she gave that feedback to the teacher, who had asked if we liked the presentation. Now, our professor was in support of this group, and had made no secret of her view. Thus, the entire class was pretty much nodding in agreement with everything she said about the helpfulness of open dialogue, and the necessity of honesty about sex and sexual rights. When my classmate raised her hand and expressed concern that some of these kids (which many of them were) might possibly regret having spoken so candidly about aspects of their personal lives at a young age, the entire class—including the teacher—tried, in no uncertain way, to tell her she was completely wrong.
I wasn’t sure where I stood on the issue, but at that moment I knew there had to be room for discussion, and that was clearly not happening, so I raised my hand.
For the next five minutes, something like a small fire ignited. I was one of the quiet, “good” students, who turned in assignments on time and only spoke when I had relevant questions or comments. Now, I was posing arguments to a teacher-supported program, giving examples of adoption panels I had spoken on in my teens (which I later regretted, as I revealed personal information I felt comfortable with at the time…but not now), and I posed what I thought was a fair assessment of the panel who had spoken to us.
“Some of these kids have lived in this area all their lives, and they may well end up going to college here. They don’t know if they’ll feel comfortable answering those really specific, personal questions even five years from now, and they’re minors. Minors are protected by law from testifying in court, if the details are too disturbing, and half of the girls report that the father was significantly older than them…so they’ve technically been manipulated and raped already. Treating those situations like a “learning opportunity” seems wrong, so I can understand why [my friend] is concerned.”
The professor, whom I still think is a good person and a decent educator, looked at me with the most intense non-verbal message: “Shut up.” She didn’t say it, but her eyes grabbed a megaphone and shouted.
She did end the discussion rather abruptly by saying we didn’t have time to discuss our ‘feelings’ on the matter, and that studies showed the long-term positive effects of this panel and program. I didn’t ask her about the nature of the studies, and whether they were conducted over long periods of time. No one did. We all left in silence, with 80% of the class seemingly either embarrassed or severely affronted by my friend’s use of classroom time.
I suppose the takeaway lesson was that if a professor supports a program and asks the class for feedback, they don’t want actual feedback. They want agreement, or support, in a swift and certain manner.
If we can’t have a decent discussion via writing, with the advantage of time and a backspace button, and we can’t have a discussion at all in person, with the supposed advantage of a classroom environment and personal interaction with immediate response, then what’s the point of having different views?
With friends, we let extraneous details, like poor word choice or unsupported opinions, go un-vilified, but not unchecked. We accept differences when they disgust or baffle us, and we grant them understanding even when we disagree. Perhaps, by erasing the “them” versus “us” mentality with strangers, we could apply the same degree of tolerance and maybe, just maybe, get somewhere in our communication. Rather than seeing that person as “the other,” and therefore a threat to our monotonous self-supported theories, we could include them in our “not-yet-friend, not-sworn-enemy” group. (Just fyi, this isn’t a natural tendency. Biologically, we are programmed to see people as possible friend, possible enemy, possible sex partner, or neutral altogether.)
Let’s be progressive, just for kicks. Before we hit the “Enter” button or tune out of an uncomfortable public discussion, it’s worthwhile to ask, “Would I be this worried about being ‘correct’ with a friend?” If the answer is “no,” go ahead and speak your mind respectfully. Then listen.
I don’t know … Regardless of whether or not I’m correct, it just seems like the right thing to do.
Megan Wallin is a young writer with a background in the social sciences and an interest in seeking the extraordinary in the mundane. A Seattle native, she finds complaining about the constant drizzle and overabundance of Starbucks coffee therapeutic. With varied work experiences as a residential counselor, preprimary educator, musician, writing tutor and college newspaper reporter/editor, Megan is thrilled to offer a unique perspective through writing, research and open dialogue.