Is it possible to disagree well today?
Honestly, if I made a list of public disagreements which went well in our modern age, it would be a very short list.
One of our challenges is that we have very helpful models. CNN endlessly introduces two people who are polar opposites and encourages them to yell at each other. At times, the popularity needle on social media seems to run on snark and nastiness the way my car runs on gas. If you want to see what it means to be subhuman, scroll down to the comment section under every newspaper story. On second thought, whatever you do, never read the comments!
(On second thought, whatever you do, never read the comments!)
People say atrocious things behind a keyboard and a screen they would never say to another’s face with witnesses. Even in my world as a pastor, I witness people post vicious words on Facebook or write them in an email. As soon as I pick up the phone to call them or see them in person, though, it’s as if Mr. Hyde wrote the email and I’m now talking to Dr. Jekyll.
We may be lions online, but in person, we’re often mice.
A Case Study on Disagreeing Well
I’d like to offer a real-life case study of how to disagree well in an age of meanness. Because I have failed on numerous occasions myself and recently I finally put my hard-fought lessons into practice. I recently read a post where someone wrote, “Good decisions are the product of wisdom and wisdom is the product of bad decisions.”
My case study begins with the first time I watched Alexis Bloomer’s Facebook rant about Millenials, which has been seen by nearly 50 million people. This rant landed her on Fox and Friends, CNN, and other national media outlets. If you haven’t seen the video, you can watch it below.
The first time I watched the video, I didn’t finish it. It was at 50,000 views and it seemed like yet another millennial-bashing session. I moved on to other “important” items in my feed (like how to eat and cook the seed of an avocado – I’m serious, Google it!) When Alexis’s video hit 40 million views and had been peppering my feed for several days, I went back and watched the entire thing.
I was fired up. I felt like Alexis had painted our generation with a broad brush, making unfair generalizations and spending more time critiquing than actually offering solutions.
My Open Letter to Alexis Barrett
So, I decided to write her an open letter. But I didn’t want to just tell other people why Alexis was wrong; I wanted to actually talk to her. Therefore, I reached out to my friend, Chelsea Krost, a millennial expert and frequent guest on shows like Good Morning America and the Today Show. I’m a regular writer for Chelsea’s site. She was excited to post my letter and together we shared the article, tagging Alexis on Twitter. (You can read my open letter here.)
In the letter, I shared my email address, hoping to hear from her. After the letter received a lot of traffic (Chelsea has a very engaged following of 100,000+ people on Twitter), Alexis replied to the tweets, noting she had read the article and appreciated the feedback. Within an hour, I received a long email from Alexis which has led to a fun dialogue.
5 Ways To Disagree Well In An Age of Meanness
This whole experience has taught and reminded me of some very important lessons. These lessons should guide all of us as we seek to disagree well in an age which makes it easy to demonize those who see the world differently than us.
1. Assume the best intentions
One of the compliments Alexis paid me was that I was generous in my critique. I’m grateful because that was my intent!
I assumed Alexis had the best intentions when she hit record on her phone’s video camera. I tried to put myself in her shoes, empathizing with her experience watching an unedited rant bring unexpected national press attention and viral fame.
Many times, I believe we assume the worst about those with whom we disagree. As a result, we come across as condescending, antagonistic and even downright mean.
We end up caring more about winning the argument than winning a friend. Alexis mentioned the attacks and venom she had experienced from others online. I believe the reason I received a long, thoughtful response was the spirit of my letter.
If you’re going to disagree publicly, start with generosity.
2. Compliment along with critique
I intentionally began my article by complimenting Alexis and sharing the areas where we agreed. Truthfully, that list wasn’t as long as the list of disagreements but there were substantive areas where we were together. Because I’m convinced that I have common ground with every person walking planet earth, I start with compliments before I critique.
In essence, I earned the right for my critique to be heard and engaged. (It isn’t lost on me that I got a 12 paragraph response from someone who was interview on CNN earlier that day.)
When we attack each other over disagreements and never highlight what we have in common, we decrease the chance of being heard and the other person adjusting their perspective. Appreciation and respect are the currency which opens the door to the other person listening.
This is one of the missing pieces to modern disagreement, especially online. There’s not much listening; THERE’S JUST A LOT OF YELLING!!!
3. Engage the value of someone’s ideas while never devaluing them as a person
I tried to separate what Alexis said from who she was. While I disagreed passionately with her perspective on several fronts, I believed she was worthy of respect, honor, and dignity. While I challenged her ideas, I actually affirmed and even encouraged her work and potential influence of others.
We’ve all read commentary online where people have gone too far in their responses.
Football player misses a field goal? “We’re going to kill you!”
A person holds certain theological convictions? “Go to hell – after all, you couldn’t be a real Christian and you’re probably headed there anyway.”
Subscribe to a particular political ideology? “Your parents would be ashamed of you – you should just kill yourself.” (This isn’t hyperbole – I’ve read all of these comments online.)
We have to work hard at discussing the merits of ideas without allowing the conversation to turn into a determination of the value of individual people.
4. Invite dialogue and response
There’s an old cliche I strongly believe to be true. “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” In my open letter, I asked Alexis some questions I genuinely wondered about. I pushed back against her assessments, inviting her feedback to the data I presented. I cannot tell you how excited I was to hear from her. That was the whole goal of my letter!
If the purpose of criticism is to silence and shame the other person, then by all means – be as mean, vindictive, hateful, spiteful, disgusting and vicious as possible. But if the purpose of critique is to help someone else, to pursue truth, and to build a relationship, then critique in a way that invites a robust dialogue. Pastor and author, Andy Stanley, has a mantra he repeats. “Do I care more about making a point or making a difference?”
5. Be generous and compassionate like you would want others to do for you.
I’ve got a mixed history with this whole subject of disagreeing well. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about it is because I’ve made mistakes and seen the aftermath. I wrote this blog as a way to remind myself of the path I want to walk in the future.
If you read it, I didn’t write a perfect letter to Alexis. In fact, I was nervous even sharing it because I hadn’t sat with it for as long as I would’ve preferred. I was grateful when a professional journalist complimented my writing and absorbed my feedback. Alexis didn’t have to respond with such grace. But, I think she responded with generosity and compassion because I first offered those to her.
As humans, we tend to mirror one another, responding in kind to what we are given. I really think we get back from the world what we put out there.
The Challenge of Modern Technology…
Technological developments in the last 20 years have offered us powerful platforms and unprecedented opportunities for relationships, dialogue, and idea exchanging. However, the challenge for us is “how will we use these platforms and opportunities?”
If we are going to disagree well in an age of cynicism, outrage, and distrust, we will have to work harder than ever before at treating other people the way we want to be treated.