Is There Room in Our Encounter for a Conversation or Not?

To say that the country is polarized is hardly news — especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ equality. It’s also not news that arguments with those who still want to deny full equality to LGBTQ+ people rarely hinge on facts. The president has even made it popular that when someone cites a news source that shows they don’t have the facts, the automatic defense can be to call it something like “fake news.”

Though we’d prefer to believe that facts matter to people and that a good-faith conversation with those with whom we disagree will produce something constructive, the odds of so many conversations with those who disagree with us producing agreement are slimmer than ever.

Over the years, book after book have appeared advising how to navigate difficult conversations. The most recent appeared last September titled How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. It’s worth the read if you’re committed to work with those around you.

One reality to face first, though, is that such informed conversation attempts are unlikely to represent a two-way street. To have that conversation is probably going to be at the behest of the liberal in the dialogue.

Likewise, it’s likely that the people from the ideological right-wing who should read a book like this won’t pick it up or see any need to do so. Their intent is often to add numbers to their entrenched position because that’s confirmation that they’re right.

Liberal people who are willing to challenge prejudice are far more interested in understanding how to have such conversations because they’re more likely to have faith that dialogue is an effective and valuable experience. Such hope comes out of a view of human beings that doesn’t easily give up on them and a worldview that is open to nuanced thinking.

One of the difficulties of such conversations today, though, is the number of people who aren’t ready to engage, to learn, and to consider alternative opinions, especially if holding their current position enforces the fact that they have not been duped or couldn’t be wrong. We talk often of a moveable middle as opposed to those who will remain stuck, but even that middle has shrunk.

People who hold prejudices have built their thinking and self-definition upon them for years, decades. When they use the Bible, they’ve built their lives and souls on their interpretations.

So the very existence of someone standing in front of them who doesn’t agree is a major threat to the comfort of how they’ve come to define their world and themselves in terms of their prejudices. And if they’re willing to agree that their understanding of this issue in the Bible has been wrong, they feel unmoored as if they’re going to have to question all of their understanding of it.

It takes an openness and fellow-human-feeling of compassion to hear, weigh, and be open to the truth of a challenging position. So, these discussions aren’t about facts, differing opinions, and abstract philosophical options, but about someone’s self-definition and self-worth.

They’re about the willingness to change without fear of losing oneself. And especially arguments that invoke religious justifications are about those very things — who am I, what does the Divine think of me, what must I sacrifice of my worldview to change?

If someone believes they are a better person because of the position they hold, it’s difficult to go on. “Morality binds and blinds.” And that’s what stuck religion often enforces.

“If you’re engaged in a moral conversation,” the authors remind us, “your discussion is always — whether overtly or covertly — about identity issues. When you’re talking to an ideologue (or anyone else), it might appear that the conversation is about facts and ideas, but you’re inevitably having a discussion about morality, and that, in turn, is inevitably a discussion about what it means to be a good or bad person. Decoding this connection is vital.”

If we are interested in discussion with someone in that “moveable middle” as opposed to someone the authors call extreme, we enter an ambiguous place because that very “middle” maintains a spectrum of beliefs with differing possibilities for change.

What might begin as a helpful dialogue with someone using the techniques that the authors recommend can reach an impasse — and that means it’s time to end the conversation.

As the authors point out, for example: “If someone’s reasoning makes no sense, there’s a good chance they reason that way to justify a (moral) belief that cannot otherwise be justified.”

Any such attempt at dialogue, then, must first of all mean we are clear about our goals. These vary as to whether we are talking with someone who is a relative or friend who we’d like to be in our lives even in disagreement. We’ll have to ask how much the relationship means to us.

It will also depend upon the time and energy we’re willing and able to put into the conversation in front of us. Does it distract from rousing those who are already in the choir who need to be encouraged to sing? Or does the time it involves affect how much is left for others who need our support.

Remember that no single conversation is the one that societal change depends upon. Don’t put that burden upon any encounter. Often it’s best to walk away without guilt.

But just being there at that moment as a living, breathing human being who is clear about the beliefs we hold firm in contrast to theirs is the best challenge we can make to those who think everyone must surely agree with them. And, then, it’s important that the person know that we disagree without apology for our disagreement. We might then say goodbye.

Above all, being a model of how a human being should be is important. This not only means common moral decency and reasonable and proportionate reactions, but taking personal responsibility for our own positions and expecting others to do the same.

We expect people to believe what they believe after thinking about the facts of a matter, but when their reasoning is based on a prior-ideology which claims that it came from God, the Bible, tradition, an institution they value, or some leader’s opinion, belief in anything gets blamed on that other and the claimant’s responsibility for its acceptance is abandoned.

No longer are they in a responsible conversation with you. They are pushing the discussion into something not discussable. They are no longer moveable by discussion.

There is no argument left. In fact, getting into further argument is likely to enforce the opposing position.

So our sole responsibility becomes to say merely: “I want to be clear that you and I disagree about that.” And repeat as needed.