The futility of debate

image courtesy sabotagetimes.comLast night someone accused me of being dishonest.  On the internet.  That stings.  I know that I’m guilty of some things in my online postings and conversations.  I’ve certainly been pompous.  I’ve had the internet version of “the vapors”.  I’ve been more sarcastic than was strictly necessary.  But I have deep commitment to always being truthful.  If I’m ever dishonest, I have to start by being dishonest with myself, just to get around my ethical boundaries.  Of course, that’s possible, but it’s not the point of this post.

The point is, there is no point.  In all the energy I pour into making a particular position understood, in the comment threads where I argue passionately for one conviction or another – no point.  I walked in on a conversation yesterday just as a friend was saying that debate only results in people being more entrenched in their own positions.  The more you have to defend your side, the more deeply you hold to it.  I remember hearing about a study that found exactly the same thing to be true.  And this week, it’s certainly been supported by my experience.

image courtesy

I did the stupid thing.  I commented on someone else’s blog.  They had a post up in support of Mark Driscoll, or rather, in opposition to his opposition.  It seemed to me that the author was misunderstanding what drives some of the public criticism of Driscoll, and having just posted about him myself, I thought, “Well, I can speak to this.  I know what my own motives and concerns are.”  So, so stupid.  It’s almost a week later, and I’m still tangled up in this conversation, trying to explain myself, trying to correct misunderstanding.  And it’s a giant, fetid, maggoty pile of wasted time.

Give me a minute to get rid of the vapors.

I’m tempted, even now, to explain the heart of the argument just so that I can defend myself.  But of course, the “other side” feels misunderstood, too.  That’s the nature of these exchanges.  Nuance is lost, motives are questions, camps are formed.  Opinions only carry weight if they come from someone on your team – and I don’t mean Team Jesus.   What starts as a difference of opinions quickly turns ugly.  It’s about as useful as this:

So I guess I should quit commenting on other people’s blog, unless it’s to say, “Right on!  I agree with you 110%, and I think you’re brilliant and awesome and I wish I was you!”

There’s that sarcasm again.  I’m gonna need another minute.

Of course, if debate is not only pointless but destructive – deepening divides that already exist – much of what takes place on the internet is….pointless and destructive.  We need to stick to recipes and funny animals and stories about our delightful children, I guess.  I wish such things came more naturally to me.  Perhaps there’s a Lenten vow I could make that would help; perhaps I need to cultivate the discipline of silence.

This realization, that our online “discussions” usually get us nowhere, doesn’t come as a relief.  I don’t find myself thinking, “Well, now I’ll have time to take up knitting!” (a perfectly good pastime, by the way).  It makes me sad.  Must we stay in our echo chambers and affirm the people we already agree with, in order to have peace?  Isn’t there a way to hear each other, I mean really hear each other, giving each other the benefit of the doubt in conversation, even if we’ll still ultimately disagree?  Shouldn’t Christians be able to do better?

Maybe it’s the medium.  Maybe it’s human nature.  Maybe it’s me.


About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in blogging, spirituality, videos and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The futility of debate

  1. Andie says:

    Well my friend I agree with you 110% (no sarcasm)! There are often deep misunderstandings online because it is difficult to “hear” a person’s intent while reading the written words. Another note I can teach you to knit, crochet and even decopage but I cannot help you in the keeping quiet department. I am quite thankful that there have been many sisters before us that didn’t sit quietly and let life happen around them. I am sure that you agree. The point is you have to continue to take the risk and pray that people will know you well enough to trust your intention.


  2. I think it’s the basis of relationship that we can do just that, really hear each other even if we still ultimatly disagree. Without the tie of a personal relationship other peoples view points are at worst offensive, and at best idiotic. I believe that to be human nature.


    • Relationship helps, but even there I am sometimes hit in the face with how hard it is to understand each other. I wish that I could give examples, but that wouldn’t be discreet. 🙂 I’m sure I have some “friends” who think I’m idiotic (to put the best spin on it). The one good thing about that, is that I’ve had to lean more and more on my identity in Christ for my security, rather than on the approval of other people.


  3. Holly says:

    “Right on! I agree with you 110%, and I think you’re brilliant and awesome and I wish I was you!”
    I know, I know…I get that a lot. 😉
    You can only accomplish so much online. You have to learn when to walk away or click that little X in the upper right corner.


  4. Hang in there, Sharon. I’d sure miss your voice if you didn’t speak up on issues like these.

    I just noticed your little “About” bio up top – I love your descriptors “Christian Education director”, “idealist”, and “malcontent”, especially concatenated together as they are. I get a very positive impression of you from that sentence. 🙂 It shows you’re serious about the truth.

    I could go on for days about the difficulty you’ve run into here, since I’ve run into it myself several times in my life so far, over serious issues. There are lots of things that play into these sorts of conflicts and throw up impervious barriers to understanding; some questions we could discuss include: 1) how a Christian(/pastor/congregation) determines if an interpretation of Scripture is truly authoritative – thus determining to what extent one Christian pastor’s insight or teaching should bind the conscience of other Christians; 2) how one distinguishes between essential and non-essential matters of faith; 3) what’s the true nature and picture of Christian pastoral authority, i.e. what’s the meaning of “church governance”, and so forth. Naturally, my own perspective as a Roman Catholic differs from yours and most of your readers, I’m guessing, and sharing them would not only be unproductive, but would result in a strange but false unity as you gather up together to pile on me and my Romanist heresies. 😉

    That said, I believe there is a way forward in situations like these, and it is simply this: to ask bigger questions. God created every human being with huge questions, with a structural distance between our needs/desires and the fulfillment of those needs, which He of course desires to fill. Getting back in touch with those deep needs that the encounter with Christ satisfies – the desire for Infinite Love, to be held by the Power of Good, for Perfect Justice – that’s what can put us on the same page, even with unbelievers. If you ask yourself the question “What do I really want (out of life, from existence, from God)?”, or ask the other person “What do _you_ really want?”, and take time to dig deep underneath all the theological constructs, materialist crap, vainglory, what have you – we can discover commonalities in our underlying humanity that can point the way toward a resolution. A person can never hear the answer to a question he/she’s not asking – but if we can find a question big enough to do justice to our passion for the answer, that’s a start.

    And, at the risk of starting a whole new argument – 🙂 – I believe a bigger question to ask in Mark Driscoll’s case is: What is the meaning of freedom in Christ? If, as Pope JPII said, it is “not the right to do as you like, but to become what you ought to be”, does Driscoll claim to be the arbiter of what each member of his congregation ought to be? Where did the measure being used here come from? Do Driscoll’s proposals really correspond to the deep soul-level human needs of his followers – i.e., are they really God’s word and God’s will for their lives? If they don’t correspond, why not? How can real Christian freedom be exercised in our fallen world?

    (There’s a whole dollar’s worth!)


    • Wow! That was terrific, Kathleen! I’ll tell you what I told my friend Holly after her comment – you, too, should be a blogger. 😉

      Dear me, I hope you never find me piling on your Romanist heresies. Romanist heresies are among my favorite kind! 😉

      But seriously, I’m going to be thinking about this line all night: “A person can never hear the answer to a question he/she’s not asking – but if we can find a question big enough to do justice to our passion for the answer, that’s a start.”



  5. On the difficulties of real communication online, I totally hear you, Sharon.

    Well, actually, the fact that I can’t really “hear” is part of what makes all of this so difficult. If I understand correctly, in speaking, only 40% of the content of what we communicate are the words themselves. The other 60% is body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. (Even some friends who use American Sign Language shared that they read the words being signed mostly through their peripheral vision, and they are primarily looking at the signer’s face to read the tone/emotion behind the words.)

    It’s nearly impossible – and utterly exhausting – to convey all that other 60% in writing merely through more printed words. (And emoticons don’t solve the problem, try as we might 🙂 ) No wonder our motives are misjudged. *If they could just see my face when I type this, they’d understand …* Well, maybe – but only if they really want to learn and discern, and are truly interested in dialog and not debate.

    But take heart … in my experience, I keep finding that those who are reading us in order to really “listen” will find a way to hear the other 60% of our hearts.

    Well, gotta fly – – a cuppa Saturday morning coffee is calling my name …


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