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How We Disagree

How We Disagree March 19, 2015

In a conversation on an earlier post about my comment policy, one reader said this:

I think a huge reason for the anger that you can encounter here is that this place is pretty united by going against beliefs that cause harm. So when there’s someone who doesn’t agree, people get mad because their beliefs are harming others, so fuck them! They’re clearly a horrible person, so we don’t give a fuck how we treat them!

But I used to believe a lot of those things, and while they were horrible beliefs, I still wasn’t a horrible person. It’s not like I believed those things because I wanted to cause people harm.

And I feel like the only attitude accepted around here for people who aren’t sure what they believe is, “Thank you for explaining that, I felt this way a minute ago, but now I have completely changed my mind and wholeheartedly agree with you.” There’s no understanding that it really can take time when you’re dealing with views you’ve been immersed in your entire life.

I feel like this is incredibly important, and not just for those commenting here.

After Leelah Alcorn’s death, I wrote that as an evangelical I would have placed the blame for her death at the feet of those who told her that being transgender was natural, okay, and something she couldn’t change. I would have argued that what Leelah needed was help struggling against her confusion, not people telling her to give up and embrace a lifestyle that would bring her only pain. After all, 40% of transgender individuals attempt suicide, I would have pointed out! It’s a destructive lifestyle! What Leelah needed, I would have said, was help accepting the male identity she was born with. (And of course, I wouldn’t have used female pronouns, or, likely, the name Leelah.)

Many of my readers probably recoiled just reading this. Frankly, it felt gross to write. I, and many of my readers, know that the transgender suicide rate is not a result of something intrinsic to being trans, but rather a result of, well, people like my former self telling them that their lifestyle is immoral and they need to just accept the gender they were born with—and much, much worse. But as an evangelical, I did not know that. I inhabited a sort of echo chamber.

My point is that I embraced a belief—that transgender individuals should fight their dysphoria rather than transitioning—that I now believe causes great harm, but I did so because I thought my current belief—that transgender individuals should be allowed to make their own decisions about transitioning and that both trans and nonbinary individuals should be accepted on their own terms—was the one that caused harm. You may read that and think “how the blazes could anyone think that causes harm,” but honestly, my current position on what causes harm would have seemed just as outrageous to me ten years ago.

Yes, there are some people who embrace beliefs they know harm others, but I find that is very rare. This is true even for something like abortion—while there may be some who oppose abortion out of hatred for women who dare have sex, the evangelicals I grew up amongst honestly believed that abortion was just as harmful to women as it was to their their fetuses. I remember hearing about “post-abortion trauma syndrome,” and hearing that what those women really needed was a place to go until they gave birth, and then they could choose adoption if they didn’t want to raise the resulting child. Our signs read “Adoption: The Loving Option.” I and those around me truly believed this was best for women, not just for their fetuses. Again, are there some who oppose abortion because they hate women, or women who have sex? Probably, but I never encountered any.

Now let’s look at a totally different issue: vaccines. Anti-vaxxers hold a belief that causes a great deal of harm. Measles rates have come back up as a direct result of increasing numbers of parents opting their children out of the MMR vaccine. But anti-vaxxers, by and large, are not out there saying “Mwahahaha, now more children will get measles and DIE!” Um, no. In fact, they think that we are the ones whose beliefs are causing harm—that vaccines cause autism and other conditions, and that the dangers of diseases like measles are overblown. In other words, they think the risk for the vaccine is greater than the risk of children not getting the vaccine. They see themselves as whistleblowers and protectors of children.

Speaking of whistleblowers, there’s also the whole anti-GMO movement. Genetically modified food is safe and good for the environment and humanity—it decreases the amount of pesticides farmers need to use and increases the amount of food available to the world’s population. Organic farming is not sustainable, and studies have found that organic produce is not actually better than other produce. I believe the anti-GMO movement is causing real harm, but they believe GMOs are causing real harm, causing conditions like asthma or allergies.

How about the social safety net? As an evangelical, I believed government programs to help the poor actually trapped them into a cycle of dependency. I honestly believed that if we ended those programs, those same people would be able to work their way out of poverty. I argued that private charity could help fill in while needed, providing assistance that had strings attached and thus ensuring that it was a “hand up” rather than a “hand out.” I now look at my former self as incredibly naive, but that’s my point—I was espousing beliefs about the poor and our social safety net that I now consider harmful, but at the time I honestly thought the position I hold today was harmful. I didn’t have any malice toward the poor. And while I’m sure there are some who oppose welfare and what have you out of malice toward the poor, I’m just as sure that there are many others who are as naive and misinformed as I was.

I could go on all day, but I’ll curtail my list of examples here. When you find yourself with a disagreement with someone, either in person or here on my blog or elsewhere, it is best to assume that they aren’t willfully believing things they know cause harm. Most people don’t do that. It is better to assume that they disagree with your contention that their beliefs cause harm. I have found that the best tact is to clarify their position to make sure you understand it, and then attempt to explain your own view—why you think their beliefs cause harm.

But there’s something else to to bear in mind here—discussions over disagreements should not go one way. When I was in college, my now-husband Sean was instrumental to getting me to rethink my position on creation and evolution. Why? Because he didn’t just talk, he also listened. He signaled that he was willing to change his own views should I be able to persuade him, based on the evidence, that I was right. It is very rarely a good idea to approach any conversation in a one-sided way—i.e., “You are wrong, let me explain to you that you are wrong.” People rarely respond well to that.

And honestly, we should want to approach disagreements with a willingness to change our own position should the evidence and arguments merit it. I’ve changed my mind on enough things to feel that an openness to being wrong should be an important part of life. Do I think I’m right on, say, GMOs not being harmful? Yes, I do. But it’s technically possible I could be wrong, but if I’m closed to even considering the possibility of being wrong I’ll have no way of ever knowing if I am.

When we assume that our own positions are both right and self-evident, it is easy to demonize even the slightest dissent, and I find that unfortunate. I grew up in an environment where questioning the party line meant immediately getting the side eye, and disagreeing in even small areas meant being ostracized. I’d really rather not repeat that.

We need to accept that someone we are arguing with may not change their mind—and that that does not necessarily make them a horrible person. Sometimes ideas just need time to percolate—it’s rare for people to change a deeply-held position with a snap of the fingers. And even if the person remains unconvinced, remember that, on this blog at least, they are not your only audience—other readers will see your arguments as well, and some may shift their position in response without ever actually weighing in. If someone refuses to change their position even after you’ve explained that it causes harm, it is more likely that they disagree with your contention that their position causes harm than that they are saying “Yay, I love hurting people!”

Disagreeing with people on deeply-held beliefs and ideas is difficult, especially when each side believes the other is causing harm, and I get that. But I have to believe there is a better way to do so than I’ve seen in too many internet discussions, whether here or elsewhere.

Note: I’m not saying anyone is obligated to discuss any disagreement with anyone else. Instead, I’m addressing what takes place when two people voluntarily choose to engage in discussion on a topic on which they disagree. In other words, this is about what happens in that discussion space rather than about how we respond to daily microaggressions. 

I know someone whose son almost died of whooping cough when he was two months old, because the disease went through their anti-vaxxing community like wildfire. But he finds he can’t talk with anti-vaxxers about the issue, because it is too painful for him—it makes him too angry. And he is under no obligation to do so! He has every right to say “anti-vaxxing kills children, fuck off,” and then walk away. Having never had a child spend a month in the hospital as the result of a vaccine-preventible disease, I feel much more able and willing to debate an anti-vaxxer. 

"Lol I’m trying to convince her."

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