Comment: You see that in our culture more broadly. We\’re very careful about disagreeing with people. What does that mean for people who are no longer in the English classroom?
MCM: Those of us who are in any position of leadership need to assume some leadership in creating conversational spaces where disagreement is welcomed and shepherded in such a way that it doesn\’t just polarize. At some point I have to admit that there are limits to my own reading and that I have my own slant. I think you can do that with integrity. You can be vigorous and insistent about what your own assumptions are and what you base them on. But if someone brings up new information, you need to be willing to say, \”Oh, that\’s new information to me.\”
Comment: You need to be willing to accept new information but if you\’re giving new information, that takes grace as well; to allow that person to change their mind and still be in conversation.
MCM: It does take a kind of social contract that these days does not go without saying. And if you lived in Jane Austen\’s England in small towns, I\’m sure there was plenty of conflict. But there were things that everyone assumed that a gentleman would do or not do, or that ladies did or not do. And I do not hope to go back to eighteenth-century English mores and the class system, but I don\’t think we can make those assumptions so clearly now, and so part of the work of leadership is to put them on the table, as we did in one church where my husband worked when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, and feelings ran very high.
The church leadership decided to have a conversation about the U.S. invading Iraq because people were saying things behind each other\’s backs and polarizing over political opinions. There were forty-eight people at the first meeting, and the ground rule was, every person here gets to say one thing briefly about where you are with this, and the rest of us are going to listen.
It\’s kind of the Quaker process. At the beginning of a meeting for business, each person present says one thing and there\’s even a little silence in between. It isn\’t until everyone has spoken that anyone else gets to respond. Then at that point you can go back to something someone else has said.
But I remember their laying out very clearly just a few simple ground rules and acknowledging that this matter was highly emotionally charged. Some of them were deeply distressed, some of them had sons or daughters in the military, some of them had been pacifists since their youth, but our point here was to listen to each other and try to understand where each of us was, and it worked reasonably well. But I don\’t know that we can do this kind of conversation any more without the meta-conversation.
Wherever adults gather, whether it\’s in an affinity group or a Bible study or a book group, my feeling is that leadership at this point means, \”Let\’s talk a little about how we\’re going to do this,\” and not just assuming that we\’re all smart people and we can have a conversation. I don\’t think conversation is easy.
I do think Christian culture in America has lost the capacity to foster that kind of vigorous debate in a way that says, \”You are completely safe, you are completely respected, and you are completely loved.\” So now tell me what you think! My grandmother, who grew up in Virginia and was a very educated woman for her time, really was a product of another time, and she modelled this for me. She could say her strong opinions with a certain kind of good humour that communicated to people that they were welcome, and that her intention was not to drive them away. But I think you have to cultivate that, because we don\’t live in a culture where that goes without saying.