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How to disagree without hurting


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 and wrong for individuals and society, what is to be done? 

The response of some is to let it all rip. Public discussion of questions important for society is necessarily robust, and if you want to participate in it you must be able to give and take wounds. Denigration of the character of your opponents is par for the course, and you give as good as you get.

In conversation about what matters this approach is counterproductive. The participants no longer test the truth of their own convictions against the arguments of others, but try to make their own position win. Ethical discussion becomes an exercise of power and not a shared search for wisdom.

Another approach is to give up on ethical conversation about how to live because of the judgment and the hurt that it involves and, for some, because of its inherent uselessness. We must accept that we shall have different views on what matters, and focus pragmatically on what we can agree on. 

This is seductive, but it also has problems. Serious ethical questions about what matters always involve winners and losers. To leave the morality of a war aside and get on with fighting it, for example, is fine if you are a winner or an observer. But the dead, wounded, destitute and displaced deserve more than to be seen as the detritus of the best deal we could reach. 

A better approach is to honour the large ethical questions about what matters, to recognise the likelihood of judgment and hurt, and to reflect seriously on how this can be avoided. This means first attending to those with whom you disagree first as people and not as objects of your argument.

In Catholic conversation this can be difficult. When challenged about church teaching there is a long tradition of first defending it in technical and alienating terms that ordinary listeners would naturally assume to imply condemnation and distaste.  Any qualification that there was not intent to hurt will seem condescending and dishonest. 

A better way is that shown by Pope Francis recently. When asked about homosexuality and he said, ‘If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, well who am I to judge them?’

Such a response starts by listening to your conversation partners, reaching for a language that is shared and leaving room for your own opinions to be changed. Of course this is not a magic bullet to stop judgment in its tracks. But it does make space for respectful conversation.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, gay marriage, marriage equality, Pope Francis, SBS, dialogue, conversation, Catholic



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Existing comments

"The response of some is to let it all rip." How true of social media. And the person on the receiving end of deletions, editing, and thumbs down must somehow cope with the hurt, or get 'out of town' so to speak. We do need to reach for a language that is shared and respectful, and each person in the 'conversation' has a history that also needs to be respected. In quoting Pope Francis about homosexuality, for instance, there would still be many in the community who would conclude that Ben and Nam and many others are still not offered equality. And Ben and Nam must 'live' within that context.

Pam | 21 August 2013  

I agree. Moreover, the church needs more lay people, priests, Jesuits and Cardinals, who will also put into practice the will of Jesus' Father - in the parable of the lost sheep:"In the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little *ones should perish" * transgender people included.

Game Theory | 21 August 2013  

Andy, I hope you are also referring to those of your writers who write ( very) hurtful and offensive words. People like Ben, Nam and Penny are not broken, incomplete or disordered. They are perfectly made by a loving God, who does not intend for them to be alone but to love and be loved in return. That's the God I believe in and have come to know. This other 'God'(?) that opponents of same-sex marriage hold up is thoroughly repellent(?) to me(?). Why do Jesuit priests believe they needn't answer a question they are asked? And then became annoyed when they post or ask a question that gets ignored? When we commenter's ask each other questions - it seems to me we all go out of our way to always answer them.

Damaris | 21 August 2013  

Pope Francis, in speaking the way he did about homosexuality, displayed a personal and psychological maturity which many people do not as yet possess. He is the exemplar of how to behave you often looked for in vain. He is one pope who, when he is gone, will quite rightly be described as "irreplaceable". His co-religionists would be well advised to also seek the source from whence he draws his strength. It is not through mere talk that they will find it. Your article, Andrew, reminds me of the Zen saying of "The finger pointing to the moon". You are, like the Pope, metaphorically pointing to the moon. The problem most people have, not the fault of either the Pope or yourself, is that they look at the finger. Without the moon to point to there is no direction.

Edward F | 22 August 2013  

"a proper hygiene in public conversation could reduce the judgment and hurt" is for me the crux of this dilemma and what was lacking in the SBS Insights program of last week, The presenter, while Ben and his colleague were speaking and the intensity of the program was at its deepest interrupted by saying as she went to a question from the audience, "yes, this is good, keep it going" or words to that effect. What an appalling lack of hygiene. And that's been, generally the tone of the debate on this issue for many years. But, small minorities are most at fault and the media presenters and companies get their ratings charges by this lack of hygiene, leaving society at large the battered and bruised and the individuals like Ben and his colleague victims also.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 22 August 2013  

I get most of wisdom from quotations on calendars, and one of the best, and in this case apposite is: "Never ascribe to your opponent motives less noble than your own".

vincenzo vittorio | 22 August 2013  

Father Mick, it's Ben and his partner.

ErikH | 22 August 2013  

Father Hamilton sounds to me the ES liberal claque are being bested and are pleading for a break-tough!

Father John George | 22 August 2013  

The task of successfully conveying respect while simultaneously communicating the Christian truths about homosexuality and same sex marriage is almost impossible in our modern secular culture, where merely living out a Christian life according to one’s conscience is increasingly being interpreted as an offence. The list of examples grow by the day. An old husband and wife in England fined thousands of pounds merely for refusing to host a gay couple in their bed-and-breakfast. An Oregon baker found guilty of discrimination simply because he declined to bake a lesbian wedding cake. A U.S. female army chaplain’s assistant facing a reduction in rank and pay for posting on Facebook: “Yes God loves you as a person but He hates the sin” in respect of homosexual acts. Homeschooling families in Alberta forbidden by law from teaching their children that homosexual acts are sinful. Thus what is so sinister about the “Insight” program is not so much the emotional manipulation and the stacking, but what it all augurs. Consider that the only evidence of prejudice, offence or bigotry the pro ss-marriage advocates could come up there were mere assertions such as that the homosexual condition was a “disorder”, and that ss couples ought not by law be permitted to create children to raise. Thus Sen Wong found Mgr Woods’ comments on the homosexual disorder “disrespectful”, notwithstanding his assertion that he had respect for her. This strongly suggests that, if and when ss-marriage is recognized in Australia, what is happening in other ss marriage regimes as illustrated above will surely follow: that merely asserting one’s belief that children are best raised by their biological families, and that homosexuality is a disorder, or otherwise following one’s Christian beliefs in this area, will be classed as “hate” crimes. Indeed it has already begun, with a Christian Youth Camp in Victoria fined $5000 in 2010 merely for refusing to hire out its premises to a gay youth support group.

Name | 22 August 2013  

In my experience judgementalism is only overcome through education and familiarisation with the negatively judged other. Judgementalism is never pain free for those judged. Pope Francis' qualifier 'and who seek the Lord' appals me. freefree for the judged.

Patricia Bouma | 22 August 2013  

Spot on "Name"!

Father John George | 22 August 2013  

Thanks Mr Hamilton for those thoughts and words. That is how we make a start on changing the mindset, hopefully of many others.

Mr Clem Schaper | 22 August 2013  

To "Name" - who is talking about homosexual acts? I don't think the Insight program or any recent ES articles have even mentioned them. It seems there are a lot of people obsessed with thoughts of "homosexual acts". Maybe they need counselling or psychological support. It sounds like you are caught in what Buddhists would call "the wheel of desire".

AURELIUS | 23 August 2013  

Lesbian writer Jamie Manson is not moved by Pope Francis' approach: "I do not feel excited or hopeful about what Pope Francis said about women and gay priests during his epic press conference on the way home to Rome."... "In terms of his much-touted use of the word "gay," I believe he used it not so much as a sign of respect but because the word was being used in the context of the rumored "gay lobby." ... "After Francis delivered his now-legendary "Who am I to judge?" line, he immediately reaffirmed the teaching of the catechism. He may not have used the "intrinsically disordered" phrase, but he did make it clear that "the tendency isn't the problem." Obviously, same-sex acts and same-sex marriage still are the problem. The real question I think he was asking was, "Who am I to judge a celibate gay person who seeks the Lord and is of goodwill?" ("When Does Our Hope For Francis Become Denial?" National Catholic Reporter, July 31 2013)

HH | 23 August 2013  

Great article. Being objective will have greater effect.

Helen-Mary Langlands | 23 August 2013  

So would that mean that 2 gay men living together in committed friendship who don't have sex would be regarded as celibate in the eyes of the pope?

AURELIUS | 26 August 2013  

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