So You Want To Have a Discussion…

So You Want To Have a Discussion… March 10, 2013

A Facebook friend shared both the image above and the one below. It is one of the things I love about this blog that most commenters approach discussion here according to these guidelines. I am not so strict as to make rules of this sort, but there is an ideal standard that most here share and aim for. We may not agree on various points – Taking a rational approach does not preclude disagreement in principle, although it is incompatible with certain specific disagreements in practice, if they involve ignoring evidence or treating it in a manner different than all other evidence is treated.

Thank you to all those who make discussing things here a positive experience for myself and others!


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  • Rule 1 should preferably be confined to verbal debates. A single mind can easily handle a multitude of arguments at a time; a single mouth, however, cannot do so.

  • Ian

    To what extent is the initial flowchart about how we’d want other people to talk to us, and to what extent do we think we are exempt when we’re wrong.

    I fail at the first one, a lot of the time, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anybody who is much better.

    When someone doesn’t agree it is very easy to accuse them of not understanding. It is easy to want to minimize things we got wrong as not really important. It is easy to get to a point where you’re talking past somebody else and both sides are infuriated that the other isn’t answering their points. How many comment threads are littered with “you didn’t understand my point”…” no, I did, but what you failed to understand”…”well you clearly didn’t, because you then said the same thing again”…”you didn’t answer my question”. And so on.

    I’d encourage anyone who feels like the idiots and the trolls keep showing up and derailing their blogs, to go and show up at a blog who’s community would strongly disagree. I’ve had the experience where I’ve ended up feeling like a troll very quickly in such situations.

    It is easy to feel self-righteous about this, but I think the flowchart is a fiction. The reality is that we’re all emotional in our disagreements.

  • arcseconds

    Maybe by ‘discussion’ they really mean ‘argument’?

    The graphic seems to presuppose that the participants disagree with one another, and are trying to convince each other to adopt their position, or something like that.

    (Or maybe even just testify to their position and berate their enemies. It’s hard to know, for example, what David Tee thinks he’s up to, but it’s slightly less baffling if we suppose he’s not really trying to convince anyone)

    Those discussions might be particularly in need of rules. But they’re not the only discussions one can have.

    Discussions can be had by people who don’t disagree on anything.

    And productive discussion can even be had by people who don’t agree, and think they’re quite certainly not going to shift their viewpoint. I might be pretty certain that you’re not going to convince me that the new Doctor Who is anything other than a poorly thought out, inconsistently written, random grab-bag of stories bogged down in far too much expository dialogue and suffering from chronic deus ex machina, but I might well be interested to know why you’re so cheerfully enthusiastic about it nevertheless.

    But the first decision box rules out asking “James, what on earth do you find in such a show?”, even though the resulting discussion might be conducted in a perfectly civil manner and be as interesting and as productive as any.

    • I am glad that some found the rules rather too restrictive. So do I! And so by all means do ask me what on earth (or elsewhere!) I find in some show or other! 🙂

      My interest was in suggesting that there are standards that, when we aim for them, make for better conversations than when standards are absent. I’m all for having a discussion about the appropriate rules of discussion!

      • arcseconds

        I think Ian has pinpointed a big problem with these rules, and that it’s often the case that both parties feel that they have abided by them, and the other person has broken them. They would then feel that it’s the other person who has cheated, therefore conceded the debate and any possibility of complaining about it.

        That’s just a recipe for “you cheated! I provide evidence you ignored!” “no, I didn’t, that was never evidence just now, as I explained!” “I’m going to boot you off now” “that’s not fair!” “you lose the right to complain!” “no, you do!” kind of argument.

        I suspect this is going to be a problem with any such set of rules. Who gets to decide when they’re broken?

        Obviously in a practical sense, on this blog, you do. But that’s not going to mean the recipient of your mallet of loving correction is going to feel that you have done the just thing.

  • Hilary

    For almost a year now I’ve been having a great discussion with an Evangelical Christian studying first Leviticus and then Matthew. She’s still evangelical, I’m still a liberal Jew, and from the get go we agreed we weren’t going to try and change each other’s minds about what we beleive. We were just going to go over text together, comment from our different traditions, and learn from different viewpoints without change our own. So while we completely skipped the first yes/no arrows, FWIW we’re still at it and enjoying our conversation.

    • codeXenigma

      the art of communications and the sharing of information. why some feel its a competition defeats the point.

  • markhh

    This past Sunday, my class had a very lively, civil, enjoyable, enlightening discussion on Mary and her role. I think we broke every “rule” in that first graphic. I learned a lot. I changed my thinking not one iota.

  • Triston

    Mr. McGrath,

    I would like to apply these rules to your teaching on evolution. I quote you from your Jan. 3rd article: “The attempt to say that evolution is a problem for theology…. is in my opinion a sham.” But the fact is, virtually every Christian who accepts evolution, denies a “literal” Adam. And that IS a huge problem for Christian theology. Why? Because Jesus prophesied about Adam’s son Abel (Luke 11:49-51). If Adam was not literal, then Abel was not literal, and if Abel was not literal, then Jesus is literally a false prophet and can’t be our Savior. So any “Christian-evolutionist” who denies a literal Adam is in fact making Jesus out to be a false prophet! That’s the problem. I am of the opinion that one cannot be a consistent Christian and believe in evolution. Furthermore, I doubt you or anyone else who take the trustworthiness of the Bible seriously can deny the logic of my argument above (based on Luke 11:49-51).

    • I am afraid there are quite a few options and aspects that you have neglected to mention. First, if predicting something incorrectly invalidates someone entirely (as Deuteronomy seems to claim) then not only these words but the words attributed to Jesus saying that his generation would not pass away until they see the kingdom come with power (or in Matthew’s version, 16:28, see the Son of Man come in his kingdom). Whether you resolve such issues by suggesting that Deuteronomy was wrong, or that Luke attributes to Jesus words he never spoke, or by viewing Jesus as fallible as all other human beings were and are, or by strenuously fighting with the texts in order to try to get them to seem to mean something other than they appear to, there a multiple options, and multiple passages that raise the same sort of problem. Suggesting that this is an issue only for evolution or the age of the Earth is a bit of a ruse, don’t you think? But even for those who accept evolution but think that Adam was a historical human being created through that process, your alleged problem evaporates. It seems as though you have missed countless solutions and countless similar problems, perhaps because you did not wish to see them?

      You also seem to miss that the phrase involving Abel seems to be a way of referring to the first and last martyrs mentioned in the Jewish Scripture in the traditional order. And so the point may be about that generation being held accountable for all martyrs, rather than an attempt to discern which were historical figures and which might not have been,

      • Triston

        Many of those “options” you present are not actual options for those who believe the Bible is without error (which is what I believe). I don’t believe Jesus was fallible. So that’s out. In fact, I believe His words, even about that generation, came true (through the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD). I do see the possiblity, as you suggest, of God creating Adam through evolution process. My main point, however, is that you must believe Adam was literal. You have no choice, really, if you believe the Scriptures to be true. …what a copout you present on Jesus’ prophecy about Abel. He names him by name. Jesus’ prophecy is false, if Abel was not literal. Period. There is no getting around it and upholding the inerrancy of Scripture. My opinion. Thanks for your time.

        • rmwilliamsjr


          who believe the Bible is without error (which is what I believe).

          but your interpretation of the Bible can be in error.
          how would you detect your errors?

        • You are free to exclude options in advance. But

          Was Jesus’ prophecy false when he said that his generation would not pass away until they saw the kingdom of God come with power/the Son of Man coming in his kingdom? Mentioning Abel to Zechariah as the “A to Z” (coincidence that the names start with that in English) of martyrs is far less of a problem than that. You are making a mountain out of a molehill while failing to address the actual mountain nearby.