Art & Writing by Christina M. Turner

writing

Evangelical Liberalism and the Problem of the Other

Being a moderate, thinking person in this era feels like being a church-going, Evangelical person felt in the last one: a constant churning deep in your gut, a pit forming in your stomach when interacting with roughly half of all people.  A conversation was going well and then BLAM, someone says something that betrays a deep tribal line of identity that does not match your own color and stripe. You decide to accept your mission and begin to exchange your well worn talking points. But the growing certainty that what either of you is saying isn't totally true, or that what you're both saying is paradoxically all true, or that somehow, you've reached a plateau in which the truth has taken a backseat to the tenor of the conversation, which is warlike and futile, is getting harder to ignore.

The feedback you're getting from interactions with those outside your fold is demonstrating that your message is not landing. You (correctly) sense you're doing more harm than good, yet you're compelled to continue to dig a trench for yourself to lie down in.  Can you believe something wholeheartedly, and not defend it?  Can you live with the version of yourself that is the good man who does nothing, just this one time?

The crux of the problem is the idea of the Other: that on some level, the person you're talking to is unfathomably different from you.  That the only way to bridge that gap is to bring them fully over to your way of seeing things.  That they will necessarily fight you on this, and you are to concede nothing, under any circumstance. You begin the conversation by removing yourself from it.  You're not really having a conversation at all, because you refuse to listen and consider what your opponent-friend is saying. 

One of the more generous criticisms I hear about Evangelical Christians is, "that's nice if they found something that's worked for them, but why can't they just be happy they found it and keep it to themselves?  The problem is when they start pushing their thoughts on others."

The flaw of this logic is becoming more apparent for proponents of social progress: how do you mind your own business when you're forced to live in the same world others are creating (and/or destroying)? 

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The faulty assumption is that each individual is an island that can exist independent of everything going on around her.  Society is woven from the difficult process of constant interactions with others, that result in constant compromises and a refining of collective consensus. The so-called wise crowd is often wrong, but the solution is not to withdraw your thread and knot yourself up in the corner. The fabric of civil discourse needs you.

Signaling your intent to define yourself as the Other also encourages people expecting to be a martyr to view themselves as such.  Liberalism had taken on the mantle of majority-victim with surprising ease; we tend to take it as a sign of doing the right thing and pushing the right buttons when we face hostility. We find the evidence we're looking for, and we become an apocalyptic ouroboros when we insist on mistrusting those who don't agree with even the finer points of our host conflicting ideologies and then justifying our own evil methods by merely reiterating the importance of our cause. Threatening to never remove your finger from the trigger is how both parties end up dead.

We'd all benefit from rethinking our approach: try and think of a time your mind was changed about some issue or cause.  Was it during a heated conversation? Maybe after, when something either of you said kept reverberating in your head, and lead you to a new question.  Maybe a song, a news article, a video, an artwork presented some element of experience you've never directly had, but suddenly you could place yourself in the reflection of the protagonist.  Maybe it was years of watching someone calmly go about their business, with thoughts that differed greatly from yours, insisting gently, never backing down, but never beating you over the head with their rightness. Think of what changed your own mind the next time you seek to change someone else's.

Our humanity depends on our ability to recognize it in others.  Humans, together, have come up with many variants of a maxim that is one of the precious few things we can all agree on, to the extent that we've dipped it in gold and repeat it religiously to our children and each other: Treat others the way you want to be treated. If you want to be heard, maybe try listening. If you're entering into a supposed conversation with the intent to absolutely, under no circumstances change your own mind, then you are not seeking a discussion.  You're seeking a debate.  And you can't very well expect the other person to be persuaded by anything you have to say. You're only digging into your trench deeper, and signaling to your fellow man that they ought to do the same.