Standing Up Without Cutting Down: Love, Hate, and Civil Debate

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I will be the first to confess that I have not always been careful with my words. I’m a firstborn, a choleric, and an INTJ. I might be perfectly right about something, but I also might be a perfect ass in letting you know it.

I am sincerely working on that. And I suspect it will be the work of a lifetime.

Still, I’ve found that each year as I get older and have more experience with motherhood, my grinchy little heart expands ever so slightly and I am granted a clearer vision of what it means to acknowledge and honor the dignity of my fellow human being.

Even if I disagree with them. Even if I disagree with them so fundamentally and so vehemently that I cannot conjure up a single other unifying quality which we both posses other than the unchanging reality that we’re both human beings with immortal souls.

That’s enough.

And if I ever had the chance to attend a beer summit with Barack Obama, I’m almost positive that’s the quality I’d have to fall back on when reminding myself of our mutual right to dignity. Unless he likes IPAs? In which case great! There’s a second common factor.

So even two people who could not be further apart in terms of what they practice and preach – Obama and I – even we could have a civil, generous conversation in keeping with one another’s mutual dignity.

Even though I oppose his views on abortion with all my heart. Even though I believe from the depths of my soul that his policies and practices where the unborn are concerned are vile and objectively evil.

He’s still a person. 

Still able to grow and change and experience conversion and God’s infinite mercy. And while I can use the strongest language possible to condemn the gravely unjust policies of his administration and look longingly towards January 2017 as the end of a particularly dark period (please, God) in American history, I don’t hate the man.

I don’t wish suffering and hardship for his family. I wouldn’t dare to call his daughters sexually explicit or derogatory names. I don’t troll around the internet cursing his family name and wishing cancer, mental illness, or even death on his spouse and children.

Because it’s wrong.

And because it’s asinine to make the leap from disagreeing with policies, political actions and personal beliefs, to personal attacks.

There’s a flip side to this, too. And I think it’s one that’s hard to grasp for people who easily make the leap to personal attacks, but here it is, nonetheless: it is possible to sincerely think someone wrong in their behavior or belief without any trace of malice or hatred for the person himself.

When I hear someone say “I don’t believe in Catholicism” I don’t hear “I hate you.”

(When I hear someone say “I hate all Catholics, including you,” however, I suppose it’s safe to assume they mean exactly that.)

Now, this is an imperfect analogy, but I figured it would be less incendiary than using the examples of clinical depression, alcoholism, or anorexia, even though all are much closer in line with what homosexuality actually is: a deviation from healthy and normative human behavior which injures the person practicing it, body and soul.

When I write about wanting to protect my kids – and their peers – from children’s books designed to desensitize them to homosexuality and normalize the behavior through the antics of adorable, chubby sea birds, I’m not tapping out a secret code that actually reads I HATE LESBIANS in all caps.

I have no ill will in my heart for people who practice homosexuality, any more than I begrudge the actions of an alcoholic or an anorexic. God knows we’ve all got something we struggle with. (The obvious difference being that homosexuality is the trendy sin of the day, so my speaking against it is culturally anathema.)

What I do take offense to is efforts to normalize the behavior and pitch it to my children as a valid lifestyle choice. But even my grave offense taken does not grant me the right to shout down the other side, screaming about bigotry and hatred and wishing them death.

I desperately want to revive the practice of civil, charitable debate. Both online and in person. Perhaps even more importantly in person, difficult and vulnerable though that may be.

But we can’t go around assuming that everyone who disagrees with us is a HATE-FILLED BIGOT WHO HATES US AND SHOUD BURN IN INVISIBLE HELL, IF SUCH A THING AS HELL EXISTED.

Because where does that get us?

Going back to the religious example, you’d be hard pressed to show me an effective evangelization campaign, in this day and age, that consists in leaving comments like that on atheist websites and waiting for the Sunday attendance roll to fatten up.

Shouting down someone you disagree with is no way to win them over.

Vigorous and impassioned and authentic debate. Yes. A thousand times yes.

But personal attacks, ad hominems, and virtual lynchings?

Not effective. And so unnecessary.

Look, I know we moderns are identify so closely with our behaviors and occupations that this concept has been rendered almost utterly unintelligible, but the ancient maxim “love the sinner, hate the sin” still holds very much true for Christianity. And when I point out your sin, or when you point out mine, it’s not out of hatred, but out of love. And a sincere desire to move the other toward repentance and conversion.

I don’t hate gay people. I don’t hate drunks or addicts or prostitutes, either. I don’t hate wife beaters or child abusers or even moms who smoke crack. I don’t hate myself for yelling at my kid in the parking lot at the grocery store this morning, or for losing my temper in traffic over the weekend like an entitled jerk.

But when I do these bad things – these wrong choices that I make, not fundamental expressions of who I am – I make amends, I repent, and I try again. I don’t, however, attempt to force everyone around me to participate in my sin in some misguided effort to normalize or neutralize it. That’s no good for any of us.

So love the sinner, hate the sin. And don’t clog up the internet with shrill accusations about hatred and bigotry and malice.

We’re all sinners in need of mercy, and we’re all human beings in need of charity. 

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This post originally appeared at Mama Needs Coffee.


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Jenny Uebbing
Jenny Uebbing is a freelance writer and editor and a blogger for Catholic News Agency. Her popular blog “Mama Needs Coffee” covers everything from current events and politics to the Catholic Church’s teachings on sex and marriage to life with an army of toddlers. She has created content for Endow, FOCUS, EWTN, the USCCB, Catholic Exchange, and Our Sunday Visitor press. In her free time she watches HGTV on the treadmill and drinks La Croix by the case. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.