Friday, 4 March 2016

On Disagreeing with Lifestyles

    I have seen the following quote, attributed to Rick Warren, shared at least a half dozen times, and feel it needs a reply.

     "Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone's lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone you must agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense.  You don't have to compromise convictions to be compassionate."

     I'm not taking issue with the central message, with which I agree completely: of course it is possible to disagree respectfully with people you love! And it's true that a lot of people do not understand that.
     What I'm objecting to here is two words which, particularly when combined as they are in this way, contribute to perpetuating another huge lie. These words are "disagree" and "conviction", and while this may seem like a minor quibble, it's important. Bear with me as I begin my quibbles, please.

     First, you don't disagree with someone's lifestyle. A lifestyle is not a belief or a propositional claim with a truth value to be endorsed or rejected; it's a fact about the world. You may not share someone's tastes, in which sense you might disagree with their claim that Kiss Destroyer was better than Fleetwood Mac Rumours, but you cannot disagree with the fact that they prefer Kiss. No, you don't disagree with someone's lifestyle: you disapprove.
     I can understand why Pastor Warren chose "disagree", however. It's softer, less judgmental. But for that reason it is dishonest, because judging is precisely what you're doing when you say you "disagree" with someone's lifestyle. You're not just saying you yourself would make different choices based on your own different preferences; you're saying that they ought to choose as you would.
     Now, Christians, like most people, don't want to appear judgmental, but it's particularly a big deal when Matthew 7:1 says "Judge not, lest ye be judged." But to be realistic, we're always making judgments about choices other people make, and indeed in many cases we have a moral obligation to do so. We are smarter when we apply our brains together; if you think I'm making a mistake, you may well be doing me a favour by calling it to my attention.
     There's much more to it than that, of course, but the basic point is that we can and do and sometimes even should apply our own judgment to other people's choices. And if we're going to do so, we should at least be honest about what we're doing.

     You could argue, I suppose, that no, they really don't disapprove of someone's lifestyle, they just disagree about it. And sure, that could be the case, but for the rest of the argument. If I disagree with your belief that maple walnut tastes better then espresso swirl, we can happily coexist eating different flavours of ice-cream, and the very idea that I would hate or fear you for such a disagreement is too preposterous to be the huge lie accepted by our culture. It's only plausible that I'd hate or fear you if I in some sense disapproved of your preference, if I thought you were doing something wrong instead of merely enjoying something that had no appeal to me. And that is where conviction comes into it.
     "Conviction" is a word we sometimes use to insulate our beliefs from scrutiny, to signal a presumptively virtuous inflexibility. We fancy it an unforgiveable weakness to compromise one's convictions. And sure, there might be some big-picture generalities that it's appropriate to treat this way: that other minds exist, that morality matters, that the Truth is something we should seek to know. But the practical, contingent questions: Who else has a mind? What does morality actually demand? What is the Truth? Forming convictions about these questions is at best premature, and at worst a guarantee one will never adequately consider possible answers to them.

     In general, I don't think there is a meaningful distinction between one's "convictions" and one's opinions generally. And ultimately, that's what I object to about Pastor Warren's quote: it creates an artificial distinction between beliefs, and one that is deeply biased in favour of the judgmental. They have a "lifestyle" that we disagree with, but we have "convictions". Someone's gay? Well, hey, that's just a lifestyle; they can compromise that, if they come around and see the light. But "disagreeing" with that "lifestyle" is somehow elevated to the level of conviction, something that mustn't be compromised.

     I call nonsense. You can't have it both ways. If you're disagreeing with someone's lifestyle, then that's really all you're doing. You're not "sticking to your convictions"; you're just privileging your opinion over theirs. Offer your criticism if you must, but don't pretend it's some noble display of moral strength and commitment to your conviction; it's one person sharing a different perspective. Alternatively, if you want to insist you're acting from conviction, then recognize that it's not up to you to determine what is included in someone else's conviction; what you see as a mere "lifestyle choice" may well be their steadfast, principled stand on conviction.

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