Friday, June 16, 2017

071. Institutional Shell Shock: The Lost Art of Respectful Disagreement

Coming from a religious institution that tightly controls almost all facets of ones life, there is little room or tolerance for disagreement or differences of opinion of any kind. In such settings, if any such differences arise, they are quickly swept under the rug and settled by a deference to an authority figure who makes a judgment call. Additionally, since decisions come from the top down, by the time the layperson could possibly have a say in the matter, "the thinking has already been done”. This system works well to keep things neat and tidy and moving forward, and the ends are more important than the means. Thus, in such institutions there is little chance to openly discuss and debate issues of real importance, unless you sit in the inner circle at the top of the hierarchy or find yourself perching on one of its mid-level echelons. Instead of a reliance on the spirit, exercising persuasion, unfeigned love, and gentleness, and viewing one another as equals, such institutions resort to a reliance on much more conventional means of control, such as authority, hierarchy, rules and handbooks, insider knowledge, history/tradition, "unwritten orders of things", myths, and all sorts of rubrics to sort things out. It is much easier to automatize the process of decision-making, rather than to muck it up with the personalities, problems, weaknesses, opinions, and egos of real people. In such polished institutions, disagreements and differences of opinion are therefore viewed asbad”, “contentious”, orof the devil”, and in violation of the "unwritten order of things." Such internal discord, at any level, seems to conflict with the outward image of perfection, peace, and harmony that such institutions wish to project. If you speak up you are at risk of beingout of line with the brethren,” which can place your very own salvation in jeopardy, so they say.

When a person exits from such a system, they often carry the institutional baggage and scars gained from their experiences therein. For example, in a newfound environment, where choices do actually need to be made and opportunities for disagreement do arise, how does one share their deeply held opinions on topics of religion with another person and work through differences in point of view in a faith-filled way without deferring to an authority figure, rules and handbooks, history/tradition, etc? Or, if presented with an opinion that differs from your own, how do you maneuver through the discussion without automatically labeling such a person ascontentious”, “bad”, andof the devil”, or "out of line with the brethren", or violating some sort of "unwritten order of things"? 

Have our years inside such institutions atrophied these kinds of skills and abilities to the point where we no longer posses them, if we ever possessed them in the first place

On the one hand, have we lost the art of how to respectfully disagree with one another and still come away as friends, even if we disagree? Do we know how to put forward an argument for our point of view in a way that is non-combative, allows room for discussion, and is more of an invitation to dialogue? And then do we know how to listenconsider, evaluate, persuade, reflect, ask questions, and respond in a sincere and respectful manner? And on the other hand, are we programmed to throw down the field flags ofcontention”, “jarring”, andstrifeas soon as someone offers an opinion that differs from our own, cutting off the discussion and perhaps more significantly, cutting off the warm hand of fellowshipDo we take disagreements personally, viewing them as a personal attack on our beliefs and who we are

As individuals trying to work together towards real unity, does that mean we simply sit around smiling at one another and agreeing with every idea that comes out of every person's mouth when inside we might have significant disagreement? Is that charity or is that a lazy way to create a sort of false unity, or does it depend on the situation? Or, do we work towards true unity by hearing one another out, really listening and trying to understand, asking questions, and then exchanging our own point of view in a loving, kind, and open way that allows for dialogue and discussion? Can we be unified if we don't agree on every topic? Many believe that in an effort to keep the peace andavoid contention”, the best thing to do is to simply put their head in the sand and wait for the gray clouds of possible contention to float on by. However, are opportunities for greater unity lost when we do this? Are opportunities for greater unity also lost when we dominate in conversation or use leverage to silence another's opinion, refusing to be persuaded or consider another point of view

Are all of these perhaps some of the symptoms and manifestations of institutional shell shock that we must cure from ourselves if we are to rise above our current state and become one

There is a scripture in the Doctrine & Covenants that describes why, in part, the early saints failed in their efforts for Zion (D&C 101:6): “Behold, I say unto you, there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances.What really are these attributes manifested by the early saints? How do we know if we are falling into the same patterns? Here are some definitions from the 1828 Websters Dictionary

1. Strife; struggle; a violent effort to obtain something, or to resist a person, claim or injury; contest; quarrel.
2. Strife in words or debate; quarrel; angry contest; controversy.

Jar (as in jarrings):
1. To strike together with a short rattle or tremulous sound; to strike untunably or harshly; to strike discordantly; as a jarring sound.
2. To clash; to interfere; to act in opposition; to be inconsistent.
3. To quarrel; to dispute; to clash in words.

Envy (as in envyings):
1. To feel uneasiness, mortification or discontent, at the sight of superior excellence, reputation or happiness enjoyed by another; to repine at another's prosperity; to fret or grieve one's self at the real or supposed superiority of another, and to hate him on that account.
2. Rivalry; competition.
3. Malice; malignity.
4. Public odium; ill repute; invidiousness.

1. Exertion or contention for superiority; contest of emulation, either by intellectual or physical efforts.
2. Contention in anger or enmity; contest; struggle for victory; quarrel or war.

To me, collectively, these words describe an open, often public, vitriolic, mean-spirited, angry, personal, caustic, biting, ferocious interchange or quarrel that rises above the level of a disagreement or a difference of opinion.

In my profession, I am constantly engaged in debate and discussion with othersWe all have different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge. Therefore, it is only natural for us to have differences of opinion, and therefore we should expect that to be the norm, not the exceptionIn such cases, I do not ask or expect others to share my opinions or convictions, and my goal is not to change othersviews so they accord more nearly with my own. I want to learn and share, plain and simple, and perhaps we can both come away from the exchange for the better. Any time I engage in debate and discussion with another person, for me, it is outside of who that person is, it is not personal or about them. Although any discussion has the potential to rise to the level of contention, jarrings, and strife, that is up to the people involved to regulate themselves. Therefore, discussion and debate and differences of opinion should not be feared, and on the contrary, they should be welcomed. WhyHaving different perspectives on issues and challenges can be enormously helpful. They can help us to make our own thinking and ideas clearer, and most importantly of all, we ourselves might be in error. In my profession, there is a maxim that holds true for me in all of life, and it sort of goes something like thisIt is not a matter of being right or wrong, it is a matter of determining the degree to which you are (or I am) wrong. In other words, I just assume I am always wrong to some degree. I lack the full picture, all the pieces of the puzzle, all the cards in the deck, etc. I lack full truth. I gather intelligence from as many sources as I can, I compare and contrast ("by proving contraries, truth is made manifest" - Joseph Smith), and then I use the mind and heart that God gave me, along with whatever degree of inspiration I can gather, to help me sort out how off I am and determine the best path forward. And with all of that, I still make plenty of mistakes and errors in judgment, huge ones sometimes, so I thank God for the atonement.

However, I try not to let disagreements become personal. I try to distinguish the person from the persons opinion, and I try to differentiate between a healthy argument and a personal quarrel. Sometimes it is important to agree to disagree and just move on, but it is important to not fear someone who holds an opposing view. If we are comfortable with our own standards, we can be accepting and tolerant of variety and differences of opinion. As I respect the opinions and views of others, I genuinely feel that in most cases they in turn respect and better understand my own. Often, I am pleasantly surprised by how my own views are improved by a healthy discussion with others who hold opposing views. This mutual respect can transcend a mere difference of opinion on a minor issue, but can lead to friendships with people quite different than yourselfyou can truly be one with a variety of individuals without having to agree on every topicJust because you listen to another's opinion, that does not mean you have to act on it, and of course, there may come a point, or there may be some topics, where you do not want to listen anymore for various reasons, and you have the right to walk away or discontinue the conversation

A near Zion-like society is described in the Book of 4th Nephi the prophet says that there was no contention among them four times

2 and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another.

13 And it came to pass that there was no contention among all the people, in all the land; but there were mighty miracles wrought among the disciples of Jesus.

15 And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.

18 and there was no contention in all the land.

Certainly these people were in harmony on many things, but does this also mean there were no differences of opinion or disagreements among them? Obviously their hearts were filled with the love of God, so might this mean that the people also loved their brothers and sisters so much that they learned the importance of listening to one another respectfully, considering differences of opinion, asking each other questions, and engaging in the art of respectful disagreement when needed

There is no need to waste time hating people with whom you disagree. We can try to focus on the fruitful nature of such disagreements; how they have helped you to shape our own views of what we are doing, or who we are, or why we are doing something in a certain way. We can be magnanimous and generous in accepting othersfailings. It might be the case that sources of disagreement and differences of opinion can be an important vehicle for arriving at greater unity


  1. James, well said! I have learned from my reading of this. Thank you for putting these words together in a way that persuades me to communicate more effectively with others.

  2. This is the kind of information I would like to print and keep in my personal collection of "Words of Wisdom".

  3. If a Jew has no one to quarrel with, he quarrels with God, and we call it theology; or he quarrels with himself, and we call it psychology. Or he quarrels with the psychoanalyst, and we call it literature.

    Two Jews and three opinions are better that three Jews with no opinions. Passionate arguments are better than passionless acceptance.

    – Elie Wiesel

    Note that the name Israel literaly means struggled with God.

    Abraham debated the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with God.

    Jacob wrestled with an angel.

    When the Lord threatened to consume the children of Israel after the golden calf incident, Moses countered, then “blot me out of thy book which thou hast written.”

    Even Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof declared to God: “Sometimes I think, when it gets too quiet up there, You say to Yourself, ‘What kind of mischief can I play on My friend Tevye?’ ” Tevye remained a friend to God even as he and his family and neighbors were driven out of their shtetl Anatevka.

    Jews come to know God through their struggles and quarrels with God.

  4. Well put. I would add that it is foolish for me to attribute an ill-motive to criticism or disagreement. Instead I assume they mean well and are earnestly trying to help, but lack skill in making their point. I assume the burden of taking no offense.
    Young brothers and sisters squabble, but they love one another. We ought to notice how quickly young siblings reconcile after a dust-up between them. Childlike forgiveness is quick and unconditional. We can aspire to that.

  5. The question posed: "As individuals trying to work together towards real unity, does that mean we simply sit around smiling at one another and agree with every idea that comes out of every person's mouth when inside we might have significant disagreement? Is that charity or is that a lazy way to create a sort of false unity, or does it depend on the situation?"
    The answer given in scripture:
    "Agree with thine adversary quickly while thou art in the way with him, lest at any time he shall get thee, and thou shalt be cast into prison. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence until thou hast paid the uttermost senine. And while ye are in prison can ye pay even one senine? Verily, verily, I say unto you, Nay."

    This can be interpreted many ways, of course, but if you look at the principle in action, we can see how it works. Ammon did not go to King Lamoni and kindly debate the king's actions (which were wicked, by King Lamoni's own admission). He just went to work serving. Lamoni was blown away by the power Ammon had and therefore became inquisitive. Ammon never imposed his beliefs on the king, although he did respond to questions. Even then, the answers were given in a way which was according to the language and understanding of the king.

    Later, the love of the king by Ammon was displayed when he defended Lamoni from his father. That, in turn, converted not only his father, but an entire kingdom of Lamanites.

    I hear frequently that the doctrine of Christ as given in Bountiful is good advice, but not to be taken literally. My guess is, though, that given the nature of those who received the Lord, they took His words literally and thus became "one." This didn't happen until the Lord appeared to the 12 and questioned why they were still disputing with each other (probably in a kind way).

    "And if it so be that the church is built upon my gospel then will the Father show forth his own works in it." This, to me, is like the story of Ammon and Lamoni. If we are truly seeking His will and acting in His "name," then the power of the Father will be demonstrated, and it will do the converting. We won't need to engage in "respectful disagreement" because the works will do the speaking.


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