In honor of Thanksgiving week and families sitting around tables and living rooms talking… I thought it would be fun to take a week off out normal topics and talk about how we talk about what we talk about!
I seem to run into the same odd glitch in almost any conversation I attempt to enter, and honestly, I find it a really unhelpful way to have a conversation.
It happens when we talk about economics or taxes or anything regarding money. If you hold up Bill Gates on one hand and the homeless guy on the other, the large majority of people (in the middle) are neglected and the conversation doesn’t go anywhere.
It happens when we talk about War and your grandfather who fought in World War II (who you deeply love) and the Pacifist at the other end of the spectrum. There is a whole series of considerations that get passed over and neglected as emotions quickly rise.
It happens in religious conversations – whether to topic is the Calvinist/Arminian debate, speaking in tongues, the Catholic sex abuse scandal, or Creation / Evolution. I seems to happens whenever abortion or homosexuality or gun control comes up.
So often these contentious issues seem to to have no “middle ground”, but my theory is that this is a direct result of the way that we frame the conversation. When we live and talk out at the extreme “ends” of the spectrum, we can roughly predict how almost all conversations will go on any contested issue.
Before I get into examples let me give what I think are the 3 clearest signs that you may be up against it.
- If there are only two options or if two options seems to dominate.
- If “Spectrum Language” is used but it is exclusively the highest end and the lowest end that are used. If the focus is on ‘the extremes’.
- If there is a long history (or track record) that is summarized by slogans, cliches, bumper-stickers or inflammatory insults. If the round and around nature of the argument discourages people to even enter in or if it finds them fatigued on the hope that there is any helpful solution whatsoever.
This is especially true if either the extreme of one end or the extreme of the other is used anecdotally to resist any change or to discount any innovation.
Here is my suggestion: Take any topic that seems to have this polarized nature to it and force yourself to come up with 4 or 5 groups or views on the subject.
Then take those groups and see if they might be (even roughly) chartable on a Bell Curve. Then – for the purpose of an initial conversation – we eliminate the upper 10% and the lowest 10%. We take them off the table so that we can address the big middle (or majority) to see if it changes the conversation at all.
Let’s start with an easy example: speaking in tongues.
Step One: come up with 4 or 5 categories. Obviously we have a) those think that if you are ‘saved’ you have to speak in tongues, b) those that think it is complete hogwash, c)those that believe it because it is in the Bible but have never experienced it, d) and those who think that it is one of the Gifts but that not everyone needs to do it.
Step Two: chart it (roughly) on a spectrum / bell curve. Those who insist on it for salvation will be the high-end and those who think it is hogwash will be the low end. Everyone else goes in the middle.
Step Three: mute the high-end and the low-end and see if there is a different conversation that happens when the majority talks without the vocal minorities who normally dominate the conversation.
Let me give some more examples.
When people try to talk about Finances, the Economy, and Taxes someone will often bring up Bill Gates (as the richest of the rich) and the homeless guy (as the poorest of the poor) – I find this wholly unhelpful. In fact – and this ironic – rarely are there any numbers used in a conversation about Money!! People say ‘the rich’ or ‘the poor’ and there is no dollar amount assigned. Who are the rich? Is that like assets over $500,000 or it those who make $250,000 a year or $100,000 a year.
My point is the the “the rich” as a category is unhelpful to any conversation that you might be having over a coffee table or in a living room. Let’s get some numbers on this baby! Then, let’s put it on a bell curve and for the purposes of constructive dialogue lets NOT talk about Bill Gates or the ‘homeless guy’ (an unhelpful caricature) as the high end and low end of the spectrum. Now, lets talk about taxes.
When people try to talk about War, the two extremes of ‘just’ war theory and pacifism are instantly invoked and then the conversation is immediately polarized and we are swept into the deep water, get in over our head immediately, tempers rise and intelligent exchange drops. I think that the overly simplistic understanding of WWII needs to be dropped from the conversation. Unless someone has looked at the role that the German Christians played and has read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison, I would ask you to not use “the Nazis” as example – especially if you think that “the Nazis” is a trump card that ends the conversation and you are automatically declared he winner.
I find is disconcerting that when it comes to war we make this same jump. There is not discussion about what constitutes a “Just” war and if the current conflicts that our country finds itself in meet those criteria. People shout “we were attacked” or “they hate us for our freedom” and off we go to invade two countries. Then if anyone asks about America’s military operations and para-military activity in those regions for the past 40 years they are somehow “dishonoring the 3000 people who lost their lives the day those towers fell” ? If someone points out that no “Just” cause was justified by the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush coalition (and groups like Haliburton)- somebody gets all up arms because ‘the young men and women who serve in our military are laying down their lives so that we can be free!’. This kind of blind faith and rote repetition of rhetoric and slogans that all American military activity is automatically virtuous by default – that is not helpful.
I get the feeling that the whole Pacifist at one end of the spectrum and Just War at the other end is failing us. I think that it would be helpful to sketch out 4 or 5 positions on war, put ‘the Military Industrial Complex and those that profit off of War’ up at one end and ‘those who oppose all war fundamentally’ at the other. Everyone else goes in the middle. Then mute the extremes at both ends and see if the conversation goes differently.
When people try to talk about salvation or some other christian idea and the Calvinist vs. Arminian are introduced the conversation takes on a round-and-round exhausting track that does not lead anywhere (or anywhere good). I think that it would be good to go through the exercise here too.
I could also talk about Homosexuality, Abortion, Gun control, Creation /Evolution and so many other things but I just wanted focus on the three topics of the Economy, War, and Salvation for this post.
So just in closing I wanted to pass along little indicators that the conversation may need this kind of intervention.
– When people are initially dismissive of any new suggestion because of one of the two extremes.
– When people will not acknowledge the large impact of an idea because they object to one of the possible exceptions.
– When people throw around big bad Titles, without qualifying the historical past or the nuanced present.
I have examples of all of this stuff – if you want any clarification just ask about a specific. I didn’t want to get off track with hundreds of examples – I just wanted to put out the Big Idea.
I thought that it would be a good idea to take a week off just focusing on Bible verses and debating Christians being violent and talk about how we talk about the things we talk about.
November 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm
>Bo,Great thoughts as usual. You know how much I hate the extreme rhetoric that is used in much of our "conversations" about important topics and issues. To take anything that is important for our faith and humanity and compact it down so it fits on a spectrum will inevitably do violence not only to the conversation but the action that must come out of it. One question did come to mind as I read this, though. Do you think that there are issues in which it would be more in line with the Kingdom of God to take an extreme position in conversation rather than the middle 80% of the bell curve? For instance, women in leadership within the church. One one side, there are those who think that women should have no place in anything that might resemble leadership. On the other, there are those who believe that women should be able to function in all of the same leadership capacities as men, no exception. Now, the latter could be called the extreme "end," yet I still will place myself (and I know many other will as well) in that end. Are we being extreme, or just following Jesus? And how should this present itself in conversation, especially with those who disagree?Or take the current conversations about homosexuality in the church, specifically when it comes to leadership within the institutional church. Now there are tons of thoughts and views on this, all across the "spectrum." Now I have become more and more convinced that much of the "middle ground" in this conversation in not really a middle ground, but a veiled condemnation of homosexuality wrapped in a coat of love (the whole love the sinner, hate the sin thing).Now I know you are talking not about what we believe and where we stand, but on the conversation about these things. So I ask: Are there times in conversation and dialogue that, in order to live our the Gospel and stand with the poor and oppressed and other human beings, we should take an extreme position?I am still wrestling with this, as I full agree with you that our extreme conversations often do more harm than good. Hope you are well my friend. Have a great Thanksgiving.
November 24, 2010 at 7:18 pm
>Two thoughts (and these are just my opinions obviously)I think there IS a time where we will want to hold a definite position and maybe even “take a stand”. I am only putting forward that for the purpose of initial consideration on these volatile issues, we may want to step back and try something else. Especially in a civil society. That to have a civic conversation we may need to expand past the far right and far left yelling tired cliches at each other and using ‘straw men’ to make the other team look bad. Having said that, I think if we are to overcome the inertia of the statues quo we will need this kind of mechanism to change the dynamics of the conversation. So my suggestion is that we make sure we have the ‘high end’ and the ‘low end’ of the spectrum accurately understood. For instance, in the Women as Pastors conversation, I would agree with one end of your spectrum but suggest that the other end is farther out than you had it! I agree that one end is ‘no women pastors- it is un “natural” – god didn’t make them that way’. But I would say that the other end is not ‘full inclusion’ but that having ANY pastor – especially a man – is a reinforcement of the hierarchy / patriarchy that IS the problem. So if we mute the “women are created inferior” crowd and the “no one should ever be in leadership” crowd… we might have a very different conversation. That is all I am saying. The same goes for the homosexuality issue. The “I am 100% positive it is wrong because the way that I read in my English translation makes it crystal clear” perspective and the “morality is nothing but a social construct” kind of permissive-promiscuous perspective are not going to be helpful for the initial phase of the conversation. Especially when the large majority of us want to have a less polarized dialogue about how we live and work in our communities. whatcha think?
November 24, 2010 at 7:59 pm
>I think you are right on. I guess I wasn't really disagreeing with you as much as wresting with how to do what you said. It is just that in conversation, I have realized that I am to quick to try and take the middle ground, even a loose middle ground (the middle 80%), away from any extreme position, and in doing so I feel like I have at many times failed to stand up for people/issues/ideas that I believe are important.Much of that might come from exactly what you pointed out, that my spectrum does not in fact contain the real extremes. The more I thought about it the more I think my spectrum is formed more by my experience and those I interact with than by my reflection on an idea and thoughts about what might actually constitute the extreme. So, the "extreme" place I am standing in the conversation is not the extreme you are talking about :)Because at the end of the day, I don't think I disagree with anything in your original post, and am all for learning how to talk to each other better about important things.
November 24, 2010 at 8:22 pm
>NO! I think that you are 100% right and that is WHY we need to keep the conversation going. I did not have space in my response to say how important it is that the views that you expressed on your 'spectrum' are the LARGE majority and those who actually want to have a dialogue !! Your spectrum is why the bell curve is a valuable tool. What I see happening is that the loud extremes drown out thoughtful, listening, considerate, respectful, contemplative conversation. The loud clerical voice who wants to go back to the 1800's who is dogmatic and dismissive (since he is in a position of power) at one end – and the sarcastic inflammatory post-structural anarchist (since she is not able to be in power because of the system) on the other end … well, I just think that they may not be helpful to the INITIAL phase of conversation when we are charting the landscape and dialoguing with all the different camps. They both may have valid points for consideration – I am only talking about removing the intense pressure and tension in order to sketch out the lay of the land. we need to keep talking. it's too important!
November 27, 2010 at 10:11 pm
>How about discussing the implications of this on politics as well? I think the either-or culture was stimulated at the beginning of the era of the presidential candidate 'debates' when discussing options and ideas become more about teams, having opponents and winning or losing. I don't suppose that they're even many town halls that are discussions where anyone's idea is valid- rather if there are 'important people' present, they get the awards for 'most valuable opinion' and if there are at least 2 important people present, it becomes about taking sides instead of taking off the 'power hat' and giving everyone a chance to speak. This also happens in church politics just as much as regular politics.
November 30, 2010 at 4:30 am
>Sooo-Being passionate about something doesn't make you inescapably extreme? This (though an oversimplification, admittedly), is what I gleaned from the first 4 comments…now to just avoid letting passion keep me from being so loud that no one can (or wants to) hear me…
November 30, 2010 at 4:31 am
>oops I meant "make me so loud"
December 1, 2010 at 1:44 am
>The bell curve is an intereting idea, but it has at least one unmistakable flaw. Instead of noting what I think the flaw is I will instead ask a question. Is the point of the conversation to be inclusive or to arrive at truth or both?
December 1, 2010 at 4:51 am
>Big Tent Christianity! that is what I am after (we can sort out the rest later – Matthew 13 style)Christianity in the 21st Century will be about the Multiplicity of voices and a Plurality of perspectives. That is one of the Big 3 Theses of this project. 😉
December 1, 2010 at 2:05 pm
>Bo, just a thought. You speak of the 4 or 5 different positions we can have on an issue as existing on a spectrum, we have extremes at the right and left, and then the middle views. I don't like it. I don't think that accurately portrays the complexity of an issue. I think we as "either/or" people like the spectrum precisely because it offers 2 extremes to choose between, or some blending of the two. The bell curve (or normal curve as it is known in statistics) is based on the same premise. Two extremes on either end, with a bunch of answers in the middle. The problem I have with this is let's say we have an issue with 3 extreme positions. We may only see the first obvious 2, and then the third (equally extreme) position is placed in the middle (where it doesn't belong) but suddenly sounds better because we know we have muted the extremes. It's like you once told me, life isn't so simple that every issue can be broken into two opinions, with a group of middle opinions existing on the same spectrum. I think that our love of thinking of opinion as existing on a spectrum also eliminates any opportunity to propose an opinion or solution which does not exist on the spectrum. how about a rhombus? the two most extreme positions are at the corners furthest from each other, the other opinions are at the other two corners. Or maybe we can eliminate overly simplistic geometric analogies altogether. I think these images we use force us to use labels. We are forced into defining someone as being "left, right, or middle" when the reality is that a person might not fit any of them.
December 1, 2010 at 3:58 pm
>Thanks for the feedback – I appreciate it alot. I see what you are trying to do. I get it.If you go back and read the idea, I am strategically trying to address a specific situation. When A) there are two well known extremes B) those two extremes dominate the conversation and C) they are usually put up as INITIAL arguments that frame the conversation and prevent any innovation or cooperation. I have said a hundred times in the 2 years of doing this blog that I do not work with ‘spectrum’ thinking or language. The use of the bell curve (that’s how it is popularly referenced) is my attempt to meed people who live in the ‘OR’ culture (democrat OR republican, etc) and show that even WITH that mentality there are ways to buffer the vocal minority so that the MANY can attempt to have a different conversation than what has been the typical go-round-and round-arguments of the past. I apologize that you found that “overly simplistic”. I’m was attempting to put forward a clear proposal that started where people are at and build from there. 😉
December 1, 2010 at 11:58 pm
>I get it. I just don't think we should encourage the spectrum image anymore. I think that people with opposite and extreme arguments are more like two people standing in the corner of a room full of people arguing against each other, trying to include as many people in the room as possible than they do two opposite ends of a spectrum. I just really don't think it's a great idea to oppose the spectrum imagery and then use it later on to make a point (even though you made a good point). I don't even think it is helpful to identify people who BELIEVE in the spectrum as members of a spot on the spectrum. I just think your example reinforces an image that you have been so vocal about trying to eliminate.
December 3, 2010 at 8:37 pm
>Bo – Kyle just had an experience at work where people jumped down his throat for considering the Bible in context because they saw him as an extreme and he was the other extreme. The conversation ended and no one else would even participate because they were in a way taking sides. They could/would have had a very different conversation if they muted the extremes and talked about the middle. I like what you are talking about! I like the way you think. I will have Kyle read this post. maybe he is an extreme after all (I don't think so).-ee
December 6, 2010 at 5:51 am
>Erin – I am have smiled several times since I got your note 🙂 I don't know if it is because a guy as sincere and straightforward as Kyle would be cornered as an extreme – it makes me wonder (am assuming here) that the other guy was heavily indoctrinated and objected to Kyle not conforming to his dogmatic position!Or, that Kyle knew what he was talking about and stood his ground 😉 – or a combination of the two!Thank you so much for posting! I will look forward to a winter break phone call and catching up with you two. much love!! -Bo