Editorial: How To Stop Intelligent Conversation

When I returned from Malaysia, I found my August 30 issue of Time magazine waiting for me.  If you’ve seen it, you know the cover described the lead article in big letters:  “Is America Islamaphobic?”  I went on to read the article, and this blog is my reflection on it.  It is not intended to deal with Islam specifically, nor am I seeking to write from a “right” or “left” position.

I want to focus on what I believe is a mounting danger in our public discourse.  We have latched upon two words in our communication—-“intolerant” and “phobic”—both of which are fast-lane journeys to shutting down intelligent conversation in this nation, or wherever else in the world they are used.  Through some undisclosed means, we have made “intolerance” our national sin, and “phobia” our national disease.  If we really want to ratchet up the rhetoric, we use them together, thus describing our opponents as “sick bigots.”  And, what could be worse than that?

But…if that’s all it takes to pass judgment on complex ideas—if that’s all it takes to “win” over someone who disagrees with us, then the time is near at hand when we will lose the ability to have substantive, reasoned debate about matters which (by their very nature) will not be universally accepted by everyone.  If the thing I fear most is to be called “intolerant” or “phobic,” I will likely excuse myself from the room of rational conversation.  And as more and more of us do that, we will all be the poorer for it.

I have my opinions on particular subjects, and you have yours.  There is no way (given the nature of those issues) that we will agree every time.  But if all we have to do to allegedly gain the higher ground is to say that those who disagree with us are “intolerant” or “phobic,” we have underminded our ability to go beneath the surface of any topic to see what details are truly relevant.  And that’s why the cover headline in Time bothers me so much.

For now, I choose not to comment on the Islamic aspect of the question.  But even setting it aside, there is a serious remaining question about how we go forward in the future to talk about things that matter.  Clearly, modern civilization agrees that there are things we should not tolerate (e.g. HIV), and there are things to fear (e.g. genocide).  So, to carelessly throw around the words “intolerant” and “phobic” are at the very least contradictory to a larger conventional wisdom, and at the worst, a prescription for superficiality.

So, this blog post is simply a plea for all parties to “stay at the table.”  Whether it’s the current realities related to the advance of Islam in the United States, or any other topic—nothing will be gained by waltzing into the room, looking at those with whom we disagree, and simply saying, “You’re intolerant” and/or “You’re phobic.”  The issues are more complex than that, and the widespread use of these two words are the best way to “dumb down” our ability to talk about anything.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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2 Responses to Editorial: How To Stop Intelligent Conversation

  1. John Harper says:

    I agree with this wholeheartedly, in principle.

    However, the bigots (I am using that word with full intention) who protest the construction of a church in Manhattan are not “sitting down at the table for a reasoned debate.” They are spewing hatred, racism, and have no respect for the most fundamental American values. People of every faith should rally together against that kind of hatred.

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