So, after having my kids watch Bill Nye the Science Guy “debate” Ken Ham the Creationist Guy, I’ve begun a discussion with my critical thinking students about the difference between “arguing” and “fighting.” I was really very gratified this morning to see that, for the most part, the students were able to comprehend – and articulate! – the nuance between the activities.
They came up with the idea that “argument” is generally about an exchange of ideas; it’s an effort on the part of one party to offer the opposition evidence and proof that the speaker’s position has merit. Argument is generally civil in tone, focused in scope and, while not devoid of emotion, is much more restrained and logical than it is emotional. The end result, they reasoned, is to leave the listener with food for thought. One doesn’t “win” an argument, they said; it’s enough just to pry open the door of a previously closed mind, even if only a little.
“Fighting,” they decided, was less about an honest and earnest exchange and more about “force and power.” Fighting is often a struggle for control or superiority; the object is to “win,” not to convince someone that your point of view has merit. People in fights don’t listen to understand; they listen to respond (and, often, to refute). Emotion is largely the controlling energy behind fighting, and rarely do people enter fights with the kind of open-mindedness necessary for any kind of meaningful consideration to happen. Despite how lovely and polite the Nye/Ham debate was, they said, it was really a fight; neither man was likely very interested in seeing merit in the other man’s point.
It was about here that I introduced their next project – an issue analysis – and talked about topic/purpose/audience. Their topic, I told them, can be anything that’s part of our national conversation at the moment (and then I gave them a quick list of potentials; the minimum wage, healthcare policy, immigration, etc, etc). Since this is to be an inquiry exercise, I told them that they weren’t to choose something about which they had strong feelings. The trick to picking a good topic is to find something that you’re interested in, but that you don’t really know a whole lot about. “For example,” I said, “I wouldn’t pick abortion as my topic for this paper because I’ve already made up my mind about it. I’m WAAY over here (I outstretched my arms and wiggled my left index finger) on this topic; I believe that ANY woman of ANY age should have access to a safe and legal abortion at ANY time in her pregnancy for ANY reason. Period. I am, admittedly, on the far-left fringe of this issue, because in all the research and observation I’ve done around this topic, I’ve encountered nothing that’s been sufficient to compel me to change my position that I have NO RIGHT to tell ANY woman what she can or cannot do with her body.”
We continued on to the topic of audience, and here I talked about the people on the fringes, using myself as an example. (Arms outstretched again, wiggling left index finger) “I’m over here on abortion, right? Someone else is WAAY over here (wiggling right index finger) and believes that there should be no such THING as abortion; that it’s ALWAYS wrong under EVERY circumstance. We (wiggling both index fingers) are NOT your audience for this paper. You’re talking to everyone in between us; the people who are unsure of where they stand, or who believe that it’s okay sometimes but not others, or who don’t know enough about the topic to make a decision one way or another.”
At this point, a particularly astute student asked a really interesting question. “Professor Chili,” he asked, “what would you say to the person over there (pointing to my right index finger)? What do you think about what they think?”
And here, dear readers, is where we get to the point of this post.
My honest, heartfelt answer is that I absolutely support that person’s right to think the way s/he does. I wholeheartedly support that person’s right to NEVER even THINK about having an abortion, and to feel that people who do have abortions are entirely, tragically wrong. What I DON’T support is that person forcing someone else to comport themselves in accordance with someone else’s beliefs or feelings, and therein lies the difference between the way different people think. I often get accused of being “closed-minded” about some things, though I profess not to be. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of how I operate.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’ve been presented with questions and challenges about my atheism – and the occasion of the Nye/Ham face-off has brought into sharp focus the divide between people who think and believe very differently. I am fine with how others believe. I have no problem if you (the general “you,” please; I got in trouble yesterday on a facebook post when the other folks on the thread weren’t hip enough to realize that I was speaking in general terms) want to reject scientific evidence or deny yourself medical care or give all your money to a church or devote your life to a particular faith. YOUR life, YOUR choices.
Where I get itchy is when you try to make ME comply with your choices, or when your choices negatively impact others. If you deny your child life-saving medical care, I am going to take issue with that. If you try to use your morals to legislate my behavior (or that of my friends and family, or even, to be honest, complete strangers), I’m going to have a problem with that. If you’re going to enforce your denial of certain scientifically-accepted premises on our schoolchildren, use your morality to hamper medical, genetic, or technological discovery and advancement, or use your faith as a justification to deny other people basic human rights and dignity, I’m going to make some noise.
The difference between “us” and “them” is that we’re okay with them believing what they want, but they are terrified by the fact that we don’t believe as they do.
Just after the debate, Buzzfeed posted a list of pictures of Creationists asking questions of people who embrace evolution. Slate posted a response to each of those questions, and one of the points that was made was that, “There is more room for a god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”
Let that sink in for a minute. “There is more room for god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.”
That, right there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the difference. I have beliefs. I stand for things, but I am not so wrapped up in those beliefs, nor do I integrate them so fully into my very identity, that I am threatened by people who do not think as I do. More to the point, I don’t force anyone to conform to my ideology; I would never force someone to have an abortion, for example. Many of the staunchly anti-choice proponents wouldn’t say the opposite and, in fact, have pushed legislation that has the effect of keeping women from obtaining abortion services.
That’s the difference. Too many people don’t understand how big a difference that is.