When Writing about Those with Whom You Disagree

I know a little about dealing with controversial subjects. My last book, Salvation and Sovereignty, presented an alternative to five-point Calvinism, and my current project (with Mark Rooker) is a book about creation and evolution. Calvinism and creationism-two lightning rod topics if there ever were any! I’ve observed that advocates on either side of these two issues have produced an amazing amount of vitriolic polemics. Some of what’s available is well thought out and well written, while other material seems to be literary temper tantrums. All this has set me to thinking about what are the best ways to engage in a debate. With no claim of originality, I have come up with three rules of thumb:

1) Describe your opponent’s position in such a way that he can recognize it. Roger Nicole is the first person I heard make this point. The straw man argument tempts us all, especially when we feel strongly about the issues involved. One commits the straw man fallacy anytime he exaggerates or distorts his opponent’s position. He then easily knocks down the straw man to give the impression that the other person’s view is ridiculous or worse. When arguing against a position, one should present it as accurately as possible, with the least amount of pejorative language.

2) Know your opponent’s position well enough that you could argue it for him. In my theology classes I regularly give students the option of taking part in a formal debate to fulfill the research component for that course. The topic up for debate is generally some hot-button issue-the role of women in ministry, tongues as a private prayer language, or age of the earth. A student can sign up to be a part of two three-person teams. But there is a catch: neither team knows the side for which it will be arguing until the day of the debate. In other words, each team has to prepare thoroughly to argue for both sides. This way those involved begin to understand better for both sides the issues involved, the weak points in the arguments, and the possible blind spots. One should take a similar approach to most topics. Try to see where the other person is coming from. If you know your opponent’s position well enough that you could argue it for him, and you still can hold to your side with integrity, then you can be reasonably confident in your position. Ones’ writing should display a clear understanding of both sides of an argument.

3) Write as if your opponent and you were going to dinner together after you finish. In fact, if possible, you should make dinner arrangements as soon as you can. It is difficult to break bread with someone and be bitter towards them. Many times a change in tone, a sensitivity in word selection, or an expression of good will makes all the difference in the civility of a theological disagreement.

Have I followed all three rules in all of my writings? I must confess that I have not. But I want to. And by God’s grace I hope to “love my neighbor as myself” even when I’m disagreeing with him.

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  20Comments

  1. JH   •  

    Dr. Keathley,
    I am writing my dissertation on a controversial topic in missiology and have attended conferences sponsored by both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, I have seen all of these errors–and more–committed by both. This is excellent advice and a timely reminder for me. Thank you.

    JH

  2. Charles   •  

    I really appreciate this post and wholeheartedly agree with the spirit and advice of it. I have linked to your post at my blog. Thanks again and may your tribe increase in the social media world.

  3. Carla Vornheder   •  

    Thank you for writing this. If I had a printer (hint, hint) I would send this to Reader’s Digest or some other forum where it would see more readers. I wish a lot of writers (liberal, conservative, abortionist, anti-abortionist, etc.) would take this seriously.

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  5. Chad   •  

    Spot on words for dealing with issues and areas that I spend time in. As a philosopher and apologists, snide remarks and “hidden sarcasm” become visible when reading book reviews, and criticism’s of certain theories. Some people have acerbic tongues, and bitter personalities, which makes a mockery of communal scholarship, and denigrates what we all try to do for the kingdom of God. Thank you, as always, for your words of wisdom Dr. Keathley.

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  7. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Thank you everyone for your encouraging words. And thank you to those who have linked the post to their websites. God bless and have a great weekend!

    kk

  8. Phil Vander Ploeg   •  

    I am going to have to put this on my blog as a resource, not just for my readers, but for me. My desire is to treat my opponents fairly, but I know that I probably don’t. I think it is most difficult for me to follow rules like this when my opponent is, in my opinion, propagating something dangerously “slick”. What I mean, is that some authors and bloggers are purposeful in leading the unlearned down paths that they don’t know they are going. In these instances it is hard to convey the dangers without mishandling the information.

  9. David R. Brumbelow   •  

    Very good points to remember.

    I’ve really enjoyed your book, Salvation and Sovereignty. You really told those low down, dirty, rotten, conniving, disingenuous… Just kidding :-).

    Seriously, I have enjoyed your book; you did a great job with it.
    David R. Brumbelow

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  11. Nathan Finn   •  

    These are wise and helpful words. You are my kind of Molinist!

  12. David   •  

    Someone wrote, “[…] When Writing about Those with Whom You Disagree – Ken Keathley offers three thoughtful points on this topic that even he has not followed in the past. […]”

    I don’t know Ken, and I read this as it was linked elsewhere, but it does appear that this “anon” might follow Ken’s writings :) .

    To Ken’s credit, he did admit in the article:
    “Have I followed all three rules in all of my writings? I must confess that I have not. But I want to. And by God’s grace I hope to “love my neighbor as myself” even when I’m disagreeing with him.”

    We grow in grace, and wisdom, and even knowledge of the social graces, and should allow for this growth in the writings of others…oh how most of us wish we could rewrite our lives and words!

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  15. A. B. Caneday   •  

    Superb advice! I regularly offer the same advice to my students.

    It is never pleasant to have one’s stated and written beliefs misrepresented.

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  18. JW   •  

    Amen. I know I have been guilty of forgetting that there are people created in God’s image on the ‘other side’ of the idea being debated. Lord forgive us and grant us your wisdom to pursue and hold to your rightly divided truth with grace.

  19. Bill Fleming   •  

    What a refreshing take on a necessary subject. Some of the best discussions I have ever had were with people I disagree. Some of the worst have been with people with whom I only slightly disagree. It’s easy to let pride drive our arguments.

  20. Angelo Giovas   •  

    Great little article! A thing I find hard is when I’m in the middle of a conversation/interaction that is going South and I can see it happening but have trouble knowing how to get out of it. The Enemy stirring things along doesn’t help either!
    “Failure to Communicate: How conversations go wrong and what you can do to right them.” by Holly Weeks (Harvard Business Press) has been very helpful and practical for me. As a Christian I found that it was very congruent to scriptural principles. Thanks again to Keith for his article.

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