I’m surely not the first person to point out the problems with what passes for public discourse these days. In a media culture where ratings on the TV side and individual hits on the web side drive the news cycle, there is a strong preference for voices that divide rather than unite. This creates a media culture that is increasingly polarized, harsh, full of clanging cymbals. This tone is symptomatic of a general lack of civility and perhaps worse, a lack of curiosity in our society’s important conversations.
As I’ve pondered this state of affairs, whether in the discourse surrounding pop culture (where increasingly it seems commentators demand television to be a perfect reflection of their own values rather than entertainment), political debate, or talk about faith issues, the image that keeps coming back to me, and which seems most instructive to me, is that of holding our beliefs with an open hand versus a clenched fist.
I like this particular metaphor because it connotes so many different ideas, all of which are helpful. And in the remainder of this post I’d like to explore a few of them.
Welcome vs. Rejection
First of all, an open hand represents welcome, engagement, and embrace. Even if we know there are large, even insuperable differences in opinion, if we extend an open hand, we affirm a safe space for the conversation to take place. To me this aspect of holding our beliefs with an open hand is fundamentally about respect. It is recognizing that disagreements do not diminish the humanity, intelligence, or value of our dialogue partners, whether that value is understood in terms of citizenship and human rights in the secular sphere, in terms of the Image of God in a Christian sphere, in terms of the Buddhanature in a Buddhist sphere, and so on.
This is something that is very near and dear to me. So many contributions to big debates are dripping with disrespect and derision. Polemics has a rightful place in public discourse, but I believe it must be done respectfully. The aim should be to persuade and move forward, not to defeat, to be able to disagree vehemently yet be able to grab a beer together afterwards.
Generosity vs. Jealousy
The second notion the open hand conveys is generosity. In many ways, people are almost too prone to share their opinions and beliefs, but I think this is still an important posture in public discourse. The opposite is to guard our beliefs with a clenched fist, to jealously hold on to them, to keep them to ourselves in fear of losing something we value.
Pop culture is rife with low-stakes examples of such jealousy. Whether it’s something like supporting a band before they hit it big or being a fan of a sport that flies under the radar, there’s a tendency to simultaneously deride the masses for not being in on it and attack newcomers as ‘bandwagon jumpers’, or ‘not real fans’. In pop culture, the phenomenon is merely annoying, but when it comes to weightier matters, this same phenomenon can devolve into a deadly cannibalism, where members of a group attack each other for not being ‘pure’ enough, rather than sharing their good news with the community at large. One has only to look at the polarization in the American Republican party over the past decade to see this: they’ve made a god out of Conservatism and will sacrifice anyone who is not Conservative “enough.”
Open-Heartedness vs. Defensiveness
Third, open-handedness suggests open-heartedness and open-mindedness. It is a conversational humility. We may believe going into a conversation that our beliefs are fixed, but such hubris does no one any good. Generally speaking, people have reasons for holding their beliefs. It does no good to try to address or change their opinions without addressing the heart that is motivating those beliefs. Moreover, an honest exploration of these motivations will almost always be able to push a conversation forward, through the discovery of unexpected common ground or ways of moving around an apparent impasse. If nothing else, it will help in an ‘as iron sharpens iron’ way, and help us to separate the stuff from the Stuff. (Hey! That’s the name of the blog!) For all these reasons, I find the lack of curiosity about the other side of arguments to be pretty shocking. The best example I can think of is the so-called New Atheists, who attack religiosity and faith without demonstrating any interest in exploring why some kind of engagement with the transcendent is universal in human culture. The result is that they write long and popular books that attack ideological straw men and therefore don’t serve the public discourse — important public discourse, by the way — in any helpful way, merely allowing both sides to dismiss the other in smug self-satisfaction.
The opposite posture is the clenched fist of defensiveness. In many ways it’s the twin of the jealous posture above, as both are motivated by fear. Rather than welcoming truth as truth, wisdom as wisdom, no matter its source, it sees any foreign truth or wisdom as a threat. A great example of this is my initial engagement with non-Christian faiths in my less mature days. Any curiosity I had was balanced by an equal and opposite revulsion: any truth another faith might possess somehow reflected a weakness in my own faith. This zero-sum posture caused me to be only as curious as to find perceived fatal flaws in other traditions. Because I was operating from a place of fear and insecurity, there was no genuine dialogue or discussion taking place, much to my detriment. When I eventually explored other traditions again, with open hands and open heart, my engagement with Buddhism helped me overcome a significant psycho-spiritual impasse and set me on the road that has led to my recent reaffirmation of my Christian faith, and my engagement with Judaism gave me new avenues of navigating my own Tradition and Scriptures that have been a great help.
At the end of the day, public discourse is about a search for truth, in one way or another. So, there’s no excuse to be defensive. Yes, our beliefs will change, likely in small ways and perhaps in big ways, if we are open-hearted to our dialogue partners, but this change will almost always be for the better, whether we come to embrace the other perspective entirely (which is unlikely), whether we discover unexpected truths that fit seamlessly into our our beliefs, or whether we merely improve our own reasoning by learning to address concerns we hadn’t considered.
Offering vs. Attack
Probably the most obvious connotation of a clenched fist is readying to attack. Sadly, this seems to be where the vast majority of public discourse resides, seeking to destroy the other side rather than finding constructive solutions that address the concerns of all parties. The alternative is to present our beliefs as an offering, a contribution to a larger discussion. It’s the difference between offering someone a sandwich and ramming a sandwich into their mouth: the goal is the same, but the attitude and posture behind the act — and how that act is received — could not be more different.
This is surely the most effective means of sharing the things that matter most to us. In pop culture discourse, it’s saying “Hey, I see what you were trying to do, but I have this concern…” instead of saying “WORST SHOW EVER! THIS IS OFFENSIVE!” In political discourse it’s saying, “I think we need to consider this; will you work together with me on it?” rather than attacking those who differ from us as “hating” our country. In faith, it’s offering our beliefs and experiences as a witness instead of launching into a contextless ‘shock and awe’ evangelism.
This final connotation of holding our beliefs with an open hand really only applies to religious discussion, but bears mentioning anyway. The purpose of religious truth is not to be right but to be transformed and to give thanks. As I reflected on the other day, Jesus told a parable in which a man is forgiven his debts and responds not with thanksgiving but by going around demanding those who owe him money to pay up. I would suggest that if our engagement with God and religious truth makes us unwilling to enter dialogue, makes us jealous or defensive, or promotes an angry and aggressive posture — in short, if our faith makes us engage the world with a clenched fist — we need badly to reassess that faith, to look again at our hearts, and to repent.
The Clenched First of Defiance
There is however, a time and a place for a clenched fist. There are times when our open hand is rejected, when we are not welcomed, when we are attacked, when we are faced with unrelenting injustice, times when we must simply stand firm. This is to say there is a place for prophecy. This last word is important. All too often, the clenched fist of protest is self-serving, and the hills people choose to defend at all cost are not of great value. For every Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi it seems there are twenty Jerry Falwells defiantly defending indefensible territory. The prophetic mantle is vital yet dangerous, and should not be taken on lightly. And even here, it is critically important to remember that the clenched first of prophecy is directed at oppression and not at the world. Precisely what made Dr. King’s and Gandhi’s (and Jesus’!) defiance meaningful was their refusal to fight injustice by unjust means; rather they turned injustice on itself, shining a light into the darkest places.
I am under no illusions that public discourse will improve any time soon. It’s sad because our society is facing unprecedented global threats and we need to find constructive solutions more than ever. Yet, as a person of faith, I do believe that even the smallest bit of yeast can work its way through a whole batch of dough, that small every-day decisions and attitudes can make a big difference.