Okay, so, I’m wrong a lot. I should start there. It’s true. And I know it. And when I forget it, I am reminded, often. I am also kind of young, and pretty new at my job.
However, that is not what I want to talk about today. I don’t want to talk about being right or wrong. I want to talk about being simplistic and reductionist. Because it drives me crazy.
If you can, and do, summarize major issues facing the church or the world in one or two sentences, and frame them in stark right and wrong terms, then you are reducing what is complicated into what is simple. And that doesn’t do the issue or the people involved any favors. It also makes disagreeing with you very difficult, and makes conversation near impossible. And I see this tendency a lot. I experience it a lot — with family members, friends, and church members. And it has given rise to a saying that I say, unfortunately, a lot:
I think it’s more complicated than you’re making it sound.
If we disagree on an issue but agree that the issue is complex and difficult and there are many ways of seeing and understanding it, then we can have a conversation about those complexities. If we can agree that no matter what side of an issue you fall on there are people that are affected by that opinion, then we can have a thoughtful and compassionate conversation. If you give the other side a nod, a “I see where you’re coming from there” even (and especially) if you disagree, then you are walking into a space of open conversation. I am not saying we all have to agree, or pretend our disagreements aren’t as serious as they are. I am saying we have to care about people and we have to realize that people themselves are complicated and complex animals.
And guess what? This has nothing to do with which side of the debate you’re on or which side of the political spectrum you fall. Each side is guilty of refusing to see the merit in the others’ arguments. Some of my most progressive friends can reduce their conservative family members’ opinions in a sentence, just as some of my conservative family members perceive their progressive friends' opinions in a word.
But I think it’s more complicated than you’re making it sound.
Whenever we talk about issues involving human beings there are always many sides to the story. We are many-sided beings. We are made in the image of God, unique, complicated, individuals, set in a time and place, responding to nurture and nature, and we complicate things.
So, next time you’re duking it out with someone try this:
- Give them something. Find something in their argument that you do agree with and tell them. Or try to see where they got it, or why they are saying it. People are not monsters, even the ones who disagree with you. Find something that you do agree on and start there. Conversations need a little give and take. So give a little.
- When someone does simplify their position to one or two sentences, thus reducing the players in the issue to mere caricatures, instead of getting mad or throwing more words at them, try saying this: “I think it’s more complicated than you’re making it sound.” It might give them the opportunity, in a friendly way, to start seeing the issue more complexly. Recognizing complexity at the beginning of a conversation is a great way to start.
- Don’t reduce your own argument to one or two choice sentences. We can all do it. Especially if we care a lot. Try nuancing the conversation with struggles, and personal stories. Explain how the issue affects you personally or someone you love. Make it human. Because a human conversation is so much better than the headlines. A human conversation is so much better than one or two well-chosen sentences.
We all fall short sometimes, all of us. We are all a work in progress. We all, every one, get it wrong sometimes. But that shouldn’t stop us from engaging the issues. It should help us do so with compassion and a bit of humility. Don’t stop talking. Don’t stop confronting overly simplistic explanations. Don’t walk away. Speak up. And do it in a way that promotes the dignity of everyone, even the person you disagree with. We might just change the world.