I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please

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I recently tweeted the link to an article I found interesting. One of my followers shot back, however, this furious riposte: “This is a stupid article. In fact, that whole publication has gone badly downhill under its new editor. I have no idea why you’d want to bring attention to such a worthless bit of fake news…,” et cetera, et cetera.

He took up his full tweet character count, in fact…without accomplishing anything other than registering his outrage.

It made me wonder, though: Who cares? Who should? Who could possibly benefit from reading someone popping off like that?

Some people, yes, might be deeply impressed by the mere opinion of a celebrity or authority. “Ryan Gosling hates Levi’s jeans!” Oh, okay: I won’t wear those anymore. “John Piper says that women probably shouldn’t become police officers.” Very well. I’ll remember that when I’m next pulled over by a female cop and I shall politely, but firmly, refuse to accept the ticket.

(For the record, I like Levi’s. Always have. And I have found it prudent to comply with all police officers, male or female.)

Normally, however, merely signaling one’s opinion does no one else any actual good. Worse, it seems to grant them tacit permission to engage in the same irritating pointlessness.

In fact, all this opining just makes things worse. You don’t like what someone wrote and it upset you? Shouting your reaction is infantile (mere stimulus-and-response) and, worse, destructive. “You hurt my feelings? Well, I’ll hurt yours.” And on and on the venomous circle of vengeance spins and spits, spattering everyone involved. Ugly business.

What we need instead is argument: inference from evidence to clear conclusions. Or, in a more right-brained approach, the setting-out of a compelling alternative.

Either operation benefits the reader: new information (or old information intriguingly marshalled) and new insight (or old insight happily recovered) leading to new knowledge and wisdom (or old knowledge and wisdom blessedly regained).

Monty Python’s classic sketch is, like much of the Python oeuvre, prescient in its anticipation of ever-deepening social pathologies. The nightmarish sketch seems to anticipate with startling accuracy the actual experience of social media in all its consuming and yet useless discourse.

The Bible, too, has a hundred pertinent things to say on this score, but let’s consider one: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

The original Greek for “unwholesome” makes this verse challenging indeed: It literally means “not good” or “worthless,” thus ruthlessly dividing all of our speech according to a binary judgment: each word that escapes from us is either helpful or…not. Each utterance either helps to mend and build the world—that’s what “edification” means—or it doesn’t.

Indeed, the usage of the key word “grace” in this verse is quite close to its root meaning of “gift” here (charis), and thus we are confronted by a truly daunting imperative: All our speech, every single thing we say or write, is to “give a gift to those who hear.”

Many pundits have rued the widespread lack of courtesy on social media. Here, then, is a fundamental mode of courtesy that could revolutionize our participation in, and experience of, social media: Resist the impulse to just sound off and make an argument or offer an alternative.

Take the time to give your readers a gift: some novel information, another interpretation of the facts, or a new framework in which to see the issue.

And before you post anything, especially if you’re agitated and feeling that old, nasty pressure to spew and injure in self-righteous wrath, take a breath and ask yourself:

Is this a truly good word?

Is it constructive, literally building something good that wasn’t there before?

Is it a gift to those who read it?

If not, then hit that “delete” key and be glad you’re not going to spend the next hour bickering with other trolls who like nothing better than a fruitless fight.

If so, then please do “send” it our way, and we’ll be thankful you did. Who isn’t grateful for a sincerely offered gift?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).