Disengage Over Disagreement?

I’ve been noticing how easy it is to have unity and good feelings towards others when conflict is absent but how quickly warm feelings vanish when there’s a simple difference of opinion. As a general rule, I don’t think it’s right to cut people off from our lives due to a disagreement. Yet it happens all of the time in marriages, friendships, employment, churches and other relationships. It’s amplified when intolerance of opinion is not only justified but embraced systematically in the forms of group-shaming and other dehumanizing purges. Tolerance vs purging. Inclusion vs exclusion. Freedom vs oppression. Understanding vs ignorance. The olive branch vs the sword. Love & forgiveness vs anger & bitterness. These are some of the choices we face when we have differences of opinions with others. 

Have our past convictions been so flawless that we can, with confidence, state that our current convictions are beyond question? Do we have all of the facts and perspectives that would make us capable of judging a topic competently? Is our moral arsenal so complete that even if we had a full understanding of the facts that we would be able to make a rightful judgement? Is it our right to judge? In other words, are we perfect? If not, why do we expect others to have the same convictions as we do? Other’s possess perspectives that can help refine our own, if we will search their minds with an open heart. Purging people tends to make their ignorance worse and therefore the likelihood of misery worse. Loving people, despite our differences, can make incremental advances towards love, truth, completeness and fulfillment. Thank goodness we all have different perspectives.

“Ah, but what about the nihilist?”, says one? “Or what about the racial supremacist?”, objects another. “Are we to embrace these nasty ideologies?” Objections to tolerance are constantly made on the grounds that it is condoning symptomatic ideas and behaviors. But tolerance is not condoning anymore than listening is agreeing. We can love the sinner and still hate the sin. 

Daryl Davis was able to convert over 200 people away from the KKK, including multiple upper-level leaders of the group. What makes this feat most meaningful is the fact that Daryl is an African American, the target of much of the group’s intolerance and violence. His success hasn’t come from shunning, screaming, deplatforming, ignoring, fighting or any other form of purging. Rather, Daryl reached out, talked with, listened to and befriended some of the very people who initially viewed him as inferior. These actions ultimately humanized his race to a large segment of an organization that society had thought irredeemable. His kind actions dispelled the darkness that clouded these people’s minds. That light was not and could not have been instilled through dark methods. 

Daryl observed a timeless lesson about the importance of actively trying to understand each other during an interview he had with a few of the KKK members. No violent intentions were being expressed during their meeting but tensions were still high. Neither trusted the other. All of a sudden, a loud noise occurred that startled Daryl. He was afraid that one of the other two was making a quick movement to hurt him. As he glanced at the others, he noticed the same startled look on their faces – they were on high alert that something might happen to them. It turned out that the noise was just a can of soda settling in a bucket of ice next to them. Daryl associated layers of meaning from this incident by pointing out that: “Ignorance breeds fear. We fear those things we don’t understand. If we don’t put a lid on that fear and keep that fear in check, that fear in turn will breed hatred because we hate those things that frighten us. If we don’t keep that hatred in check, that hatred in turn will breed destruction. We want to destroy those things that we hate. Why? Because they frighten us. But guess what? They may have been harmless and we were just ignorant.” 

Take parenting as another example of how seeking understanding can make everyone’s lives better. Many parents will play behavioral whack-a-mole with their children not understanding that their attempts to correct their children’s behavior could actually be making things worse for the child and requiring more energy on their part overall. In order to help children, or anyone for that matter, long-term successes are tied to the means in which the corrections are consistently, patiently and lovingly applied. A parent will see a child acting out – yelling, crying and throwing a tantrum when they don’t get what they want – and the parent often responds, usually with good intentions, with authoritarian dictates or force (or in some cases, rewarding the child for the bad behavior). None of this helps because none of it is getting to the root of the issue. The child’s tantrum is a symptom. The symptom is an opportunity to stop and dig deeper into why that child is acting out to begin with. Perhaps their love-tank has been running on empty for an extended period of time and what they really need, instead of lectures and punishments, is genuine attention that is meaningful to them. Or perhaps they were bullied, abused or they made a critical mistake and they are too afraid to raise a sensitive topic up to someone who will make them feel smaller than they already do. Or perhaps they’ve been conditioned to behave this way from others who constantly give in to those styles of demands. The root causes will vary almost as much as there are different personalities and circumstances. What is not needed, though, is ridiculing or verbally discarding that child because of their behavior. What is always needed is love, understanding and appropriate boundaries.

Just like there are boundaries for many other good things (e.g. charity, freedom), there are boundaries to tolerance as well. First, as mentioned previously, we ought to separate the sinner from the sin. Always viewing a person through the lens of love and choices through the lens of truth helps us to not debase each other to varying degrees of worth. Second, if someone’s choices are aggressing on someone else, those breaches don’t have to be tolerated. We can and should forgive and have mercy but that doesn’t mean that we need to continually put up with abuse. As an exception to the general rule to be tolerant, there are occasions where we can admit that another’s actions have actually severed their bond to us. After agressions are repeated so often and after so many petitions to stop, the only choices left are to cut yourself off from the abuser (if escape is possible) or fight back (if escape is not possible). Though, as was the case with Daryl Davis, this doesn’t mean that we should stop extending the olive branch. The behaviors of those who we perceive to be hopeless are often just symptoms of deeper problems that can be healed with our patience and love. The problem is that most of us jump straight to the exception (of separation) rather than living the rule (of tolerance).

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