Sunday, April 22, 2012

Arguing Peacefully

In the last two weeks I've been in four arguments, none of which were as healthy or fruitful as I'd prefer. So, like most of the advice on this blog, I need this as much as anyone.

I consider myself a follower of Jesus the Prince of Peace, and accordingly a pacifist. It's easy to be a pacifist when peace is a flag you wave, something you vote for. It's hard to be a pacifist when peace (like Christ) is something you embody every day in any circumstance. It's easy to shun violence, but hard to be a preemptive peacemaker, nurturing the small, common moments.

One of the central beliefs of pacifism (as I understand it) is that ends don't justify means, because means are themselves ends. The most obvious implication of means-are-ends is that peace in the future does not justify war in the present. But there are many more nuanced implications with which a pacifist must reckon. A peacemaker must make peace not only on the horizon, but also here and now. A peacemaker must not only make peace, but also work in the medium of peace. As such, if a peacemaker argues at all - and especially if she argues in favor of peace - she should argue peacefully.

So how can one argue peacefully? It's certainly much easier to argue about peace than to embody it in the posture of argument. From my few successful attempts at peaceful arguments I've learned the following tricks:

  1. Plan on growing. The Prince of Peace has instructed his followers to "do to others what you would have them do to you". If I want my opponent to change his opinion, I'd better be ready to change my own - and thus, I'd better be ready to grow.
  2. Forget about winning. In radical love, success and failure are redefined. When Jesus' enemies crucified him, he failed by the world's standards, but succeeded in peace and love. Likewise the pacifist (or Christian) must understand that in the light of love, success and failure, victory and defeat are beautifully mingled.
  3. Listen. It's easy to conquer a misunderstood perversion of my opponent's viewpoint, but what will I accomplish by doing so? Nothing more than making me think myself smart, and making my opponent think me stupid. Rather, I should listen rigorously, and seek to understand as fully as possible why my opponent would believe what he believes. Only in this earnest seeking can I change him, and only then can he change me.
  4. Acknowledge the clumsiness of language. The pacifist (the anarcho-pacifist, at least) knows the world is forever out of control, and that the ability to communicate with another is clumsy and limited. It may turn out that my opponent and I actually mean the same thing, and are saying it in different terms. Or, when we each use a given term, we mean something different by it. Know that with perfect communication, there'd be no need to argue (as understanding and empathy would be perfect), and as such, the most perfect outcome of an argument is mutual increased understanding.
  5. Don't correlate the strength of your argument with your value as a person. Your value as a person - your loved-ness by God - is already taken care of. Our task is to grow and nurture, not prove ourselves.
  6. Be vulnerable. Don't tuck your argument's weak points away in a hidden place. Parade them in front of your opponent. It's the argumentative equivalent of turning the other cheek. And like turning the other cheek, it's often the fastest way to diffuse a volatile mood.

Pacifism, on the whole, is easier said than done. But the few times I have argued pacifistically have been among the most pleasant and spiritually rewarding conversations of my life. After most arguments I walk away anxious, angry, and stressed. I sleep poorly. After arguing like a pacifist, I feel relieved and compassionate, and I sleep like a baby. And so, the means are ends: Behaving peaceably is peace.