Be honest: How much do you enjoy winning an argument?
At first pass, it would seem the answer to that question would be: “A lot!”
Consider the question a little more.
As I think about it, I cannot recall a single argument I ever enjoyed winning.
In fact, every argument I can recall winning made me feel more like a loser.
You see, in my teens, 20s, and 30s, I put a lot of energy and faith in winning arguments.
I thought that if I could win arguments, I could win people to my cause or point of view.
How I was mistaken!
I had to learn the hard way: Win the argument, lose the person.
Given the choice, which would you rather have?
The solitary satisfaction of being right or the fellowship and warmth of a friend?
What about this question: Can we really make the world better by winning arguments? Or does making the world better really depend on making friends? Especially when those friends are people who we used to consider opponents?
Sure, it’s easier and more (perversely) satisfying to argue with an opponent. It’s easy to cast quick judgment on their moral fiber and motives. Finding good reasons to put another person down sure makes us feel high and mighty, doesn’t it?
It also keeps us far apart.
And it makes our sin of the same variety that we so quickly attribute to others.
The hard truth: People who see things different are not bad people. They’re just people like you and me. They’re afraid of the unknown. They’re trying to make sense of life. They often feel inadequate. They get tired from the daily difficulty of life.
As much as we want to make them out to be so different from ourselves, they’re not.
If they’re not so different from us, then we have some basis for coming together with them. We have reasons to believe that we can agree on some things and cooperate to make a difference.
But winning an argument does nothing to bridge our differences and bring us together. It only drives us farther apart. It burns up all of the oxygen that we need to have a relationship with each other.
Voices for Earth Justice appealed to me because reconciliation is such a strong part of its culture and mission. Some environmental and social justice organizations seem to say: “You can be part of us if you agree with us 100 percent and look like us, too!” I don’t see how that is going to make the world better.
At Voices for Earth Justice, we seem to understand that we can only achieve our mission by joining people who don’t seem to belong together. It seems that here, we say: “You can be part of us even if we disagree on a lot of things, even if you don’t look anything like us! We’re not here to argue with you; we’re here to build a relationship with you and see where that takes all of us together!”
Yes, I’ve been an arguer. It was easier and more self-gratifying, but I ended up alone in my self-righteous solitude, cooking in my own resentful juices.
In that state, how could I affect any meaningful change in the world?
Debate has its place and and productive debate has rules that preserve admiration and respect between opponents. Let’s use debate sparingly. Instead, let’s make things like empathy, friendship, and patience our preferred methods for winning. Not arguments, but people.
Onward and upward!
BT Irwin, executive director
Voices for Earth Justice