A week ago a friend dumped me on Facebook because I was “too abrasive and divisive.” He didn’t unfriend me, just dropped me from his newsfeed, assuring me of his love as he waved goodbye. He blocked me after I wrote a post admitting my own ungracious thoughts and encouraging us all to be careful with our words. Why would that be the final straw? Wasn’t I promoting his point? I searched my last month of entries for sharp edges, but was left clueless since he refused to discuss it further.
I know I can be hurtful, so I felt only sadness about his accusation, but his refusal to discuss it felt like rejection, and it made me defensive and a bit angry at first. Perhaps his withdrawal was best, however, because it pushed me into deeper reflection than just sorting it out inter-personally.
I have mulled often over this issue of how to reconcile prophetic challenge with grace and gentleness in my words. For instance, how does one express outrage over injustice while showing understanding towards the unjust (and those who support them)? Or how does one sound the alarm to wake the sleeping without frightening the timid? I marvel when I see it done, but can’t pull it off myself—I still have a learner’s permit. Preferring frankness, I lack both the inclination and the insight to speak as the gentle do, though I strive for it.
I’m always open to suggestions and insights, but my friend was himself unclear: “A healthy or unhealthy debate is like pornography,” he said. “Hard to describe the elements in a clear way… but I know it when I see it.” That doesn’t really help me. In my straightforward perspective, I have always seen harshness in speech as easily identifiable: belittling, name-calling, pigeon-holing, shaming, distorting, being dismissive or arrogant or skewed. When I ask for more grace in a discussion, I can point out specific faults: “When you say, ‘that is stupid!’ or ‘grow up!’ you belittle the other person’s perspective or person.” If we can’t name it, I’m not sure how we can fix it… or even discern if there is something to fix.
Just as I see clear guidelines for speaking graciously, I see clear guidelines for listening graciously: don’t assume or jump to conclusions; disagree with a viewpoint rather than condemn a person; stick to the actual words instead of projecting motive, reasoning, or conclusions; don’t affix guilt by association. The responsibilities of speaker and listener seem clear and distinct to me, and boundaries between the two seem especially important, so that if you break the rules of respect (say, by jumping to conclusions) it is on you, not on me (and vice versa). What I state plainly should be taken plainly, and if you’re in doubt, ask for clarification.
All neat and tidy, clear and fair. This would work if everyone followed the rules of engagement, but add emotion to the mix and everyone’s perspective goes screwy. In practice I’ve tried to show and invite mutual respect by focusing on the rules, but that doesn’t work anymore because the whole atmosphere is negatively charged. The last few times they heard that position it was conveyed with words that were arrogant, antagonistic, and spiteful, so that tone will be overlaid onto everything I say. The default reading voice in our heads is now Oscar the Grouch.
This is a fresh insight for me. Until now I have divided writers into those who are clearly rude and those who are not, and carefully kept myself in the last group. When I failed, I would apologize and try to do better. With all this effort to follow gentlemen’s rules, to be thoughtful and careful, I was offended when others attributed to me attitudes that were not mine, lumping me in with the snarky. When I respectfully disagreed, I was called mean; when I asked for clarification, I was accused of making false assumptions. Wait! This is not fair! I didn’t belittle your ideas or judge your intelligence. Why am I the bad one?
I asked Kimberly to read over my posts and look for what might offend. She pointed out a post where I linked to a first-person account of gun violence in school. My only comment was, “Wow, just wow!” Aren’t we all shocked and troubled by gun violence in school? Is that somehow controversial? But these three words could apparently be read in all sorts of negative ways. I am truly flummoxed.
I see now that I have to come up with new rules that take into account our social fracturing and assumed antagonism—perhaps start out each statement with an assurance of good faith or denial of bad faith. I now realize that simple frankness is the new rude, that I must deliberately set a tone or it will be set for me. In other words, being gracious—which was already a struggle for me—just got harder still.