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How to disagree without hurting

  • 22 August 2013

Ben’s moving account of his participation in last week’s SBS Insight program on marriage equality revealed the costs of public involvement in issues that matter personally. He felt himself judged, humiliated and seen as less than human by many who responded to him. It is impossible not to admire his extraordinary courage to persist in the face of such pain.

For me Ben’s experience also raised a larger question. Is it ever possible to have public discussion of questions that matter for human lives and society between people passionately committed to their opposed positions, without the participants judging those on the opposed side or feeling judged and humiliated by them? 

My liberal instincts say that it should be possible. My experience argues that it is not possible, but that a proper hygiene in public conversation could reduce the judgment and hurt. 

My experience has been mainly of Catholic conversations, sometimes between Catholics, and sometimes part of a broader conversation about society. Some of the questions debated have been about personal morality – divorce, for example, abortion, IVF, and homosexuality. Others have been about social morality – the Vietnam and Iraq war, for example, the nuclear deterrent and Australian treatment of asylum seekers. 

These questions are all distinctive. But at different times each of them was passionately fought over. Some people on each side were judgmental of their opponents to the extent of denying their human dignity. Some people felt themselves judged and disrespected as human beings. 

Certainly those who argued that the Vietnam War was morally unjustifiable were often accused of moral cowardice and of displaying contempt for soldiers who had died. Protagonists on each side of the debate attacked the character and motivation of their opponents. In religious communities in the United States, some members served as military chaplains, while others served time in prison for their opposition to the war. Judgment and hurt were constant and to my mind unavoidable realities. 

Among those to whom the ethical dimension of Australian asylum seeker policy matters, too, judgment and hurt at being judged can be seen on both sides. Opponents of the policies find it difficult not to judge the common humanity, integrity and motives of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. In turn they find their own integrity and motives called into question. 

If judging and being judged as less than human are so inevitably and unfortunately bound up with discussion of what is right