Monday, February 2, 2015

On Arguing Well and the Mistakes of Doc Holliday [Jay Watts]

Years ago, I sat down to lunch with a young man responsible for getting me around his university. I was set to speak there for the next two days, one training event and an event interacting with the student body to model respectful discourse. He told me that he was a philosophy major and passionately pro-life. The more he relayed to me the past events this campus group had organized the more a common theme emerged. This young man didn't argue for the pro-life position. He fought for it, or more to the point, he fought about abortion with anyone willing to engage him.

When I pressed him on the wisdom of adding personal vitriol to an already contentious debate he shrugged and simply responded, “I'm not convinced that I need to be nice to people on this issue. I'm just not worried about offending people.”

I replied, “OK, but are you at least convinced you need to be effective at helping people to change their minds? Because I'm not convinced that adding to the offense of our message with personal rancor is helpful to that end.”

I've talked to many people like that young man, people that see cordiality and respectful dialogue as weakness. These people are passionate defenders of the value of human life that are tired of hearing the same arguments over and over used to justify what they are certain is the destruction of innocent human life on an incomprehensible scale. On the face of things, I fully understand their position. We argue that tens of millions of innocent human lives are being destroyed worldwide every year through the practice of elective abortion. It is absurd for people like me to ask for civility in the face of that. The other side certainly isn't wringing their hands over incivility, so why should we?

I routinely tell audiences that we should have a threefold strategy: simplify the issue by focusing on the question “What are the unborn?”, argue persuasively using the science of embryology to establish the identity of the unborn and philosophy to establish the value of their lives, and to argue in a manner that honors both Christ and the central premise of our argument that all human life is endowed with equal dignity. The final point should not be seen as subordinate to the others. It is vital to reaching those who disagree with us.

Our goal isn't simply to win arguments, but to win people through effective arguing. People like the young man that I once was. As a hard living, profanity using, nihilistic atheist, I was ready and willing to throw down with anyone on any point and eager for the argument to get heated. I am a Watts, for crying out loud. My family raised me on emotionally bitter and hateful arguments. As Doc Holliday said in Tombstone, that is just my game.

Speaking of Doc Holliday, I recently read Casey Tefertiller's Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. At the point of the narrative that Doc Holliday befriends Wyatt Earp, Tefertiller quotes several different sources on the disposition of my fellow Georgian. The general consensus on the good dentist seems to be that he was the most quarrelsome, argumentative, and troublemaking fellow that most people had ever met. His desire to argue and fight constantly got him into trouble. That is what everyone who knew the man said. Lawman Bat Masterson includes a small additional detail that adds something fascinating:

“Holliday seemed to be absolutely unable to keep out of trouble for any great length of time. He would no sooner be out of one scrape before he was in another, and the strange part of it is that he was more often in the right than in the wrong, which was rarely the case with a man who is continually getting himself into trouble.”

Everyone remembers that Holliday quarreled constantly, but only Bat Masterson seems to remember that he was most often right in his positions or reasons for quarreling. All that anyone else remembers is his legendary hostility.

I believe that the same is true when we engage people and match them in their emotion. I have been in the middle of some monumentally silly arguments where my dislike for the person in front of me fueled me to be willing to argue to my dying day rather than admit they were right about anything. I can't recall a single point they made after the fact, or even why I ever cared to argue in the first place. All I remembered is that I didn't like that person. I can't even guess how many people out there have only terrible memories of me in that regard. We are unlikely to be able to help anyone that holds an incorrect view to correct that view by becoming the worst versions of ourselves during the discussion.

Also, like the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the pro-life message naturally carries its own offense. Our message is that the unborn are human just like the rest of us. As such, we have the same basic obligations and duties to them that we do to all valuable life not the least of which is to simply refrain from killing them.

One young woman at a university recently staked out a relativistic position in our conversation. Abortion was wrong for her but not necessarily for others. After a while she admitted that a couple of weeks prior to our discussion she had driven her best friend to get an abortion. This argument, no matter how respectful, was more than an argument about science and philosophy. My position judged her friend, as well as her own participation in her friend's actions. She loves her best friend, and yet the conclusion of my argument is that her best friend paid for the destruction of her offspring. If my arguments were correct, she helped her friend to do something terrible.

We offer a message that abortion is a terrible injustice in our world. We argue that our community legalized the killing of the next generation because we find their presence inconvenient or ill-timed. We are ending the lives of our offspring because we can't imagine how we can continue our current lifestyle with them around. In rare cases, women reach out to abortionists to destroy nascent human life because something terrible happened to those women and they are convinced that if they allow that life to mature it will remind them of that terrible thing. They fear that the worst event of their lives will continue to physically echo through their pregnancy and believe that destroying that life is an act of freedom and healing. Our arguments don't need us to amplify their offense in any of these cases. They call for a spirit of grace.

One of the things that most amazed me about Jesus when I first began to study him was how he was utterly unlike the world in which I was raised. All of my life I learned to glorify vengeance and the strength to make things right. Pay back was a... well, you get the picture. All of the sudden I was confronted with a man so strong that he refused to allow the world to make him in its image. The more the world hated him, the more he responded with grace and sacrifice. He was strong enough to be true to who he was and not be crafted by the events in his life. It was a strength that I could only understand to be beyond human; something otherworldly and unique.

It is in his name that I argue. It is in his name that stand up for the dignity of all human life. I must discipline myself to do so in a manner that honors Jesus. I am also convinced that doing so is the best way to reach people for whom anger and passion come easily but for whom grace and love may be an altogether alien concept.

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