Afraid of Controversial Issues?

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve been “teaching” at the Osher Life Span Learning Institute at the Modern Maturity Center a course entitled: “Who’s afraid of controversial issues?” Robb Lathey invented the course. It has been so popular he asked me to facilitate an additional section. It is great fun. Sixteen of us gather (like a covenant group) to explore together; sharing our thoughts, experiences, opinions. The idea is to practice free communication around such issues as immigration, guns, prochoice/prolife, torture, the right to die. It is an interesting process to both participate in and observe.

One of the things I ask is that before we even start our conversation each week we all take a moment to reflect on the influences we can identify in our own lives which shape our response and perspective. That has been a valuable exercise. Too often, it seems to me, we leap right in and are willing to share our thoughts and opinions without pausing to consider how we arrived at them. What personal experiences, role models, encounters, education, indoctrination, assumptions, etc. have gone into my perspective on any of these issues?

I like to think we can accomplish two things by reflecting briefly before leaping in. First, we can perhaps more clearly see how our position has been historically influenced; perhaps we can even consider evaluating or re-evaluating our position in light of a deeper awareness. Second, it just might dawn on us in a clearer way that others are also shaped by similar but diverse historical personal experiences. People who think differently than I do are not (necesarily) dumb, ignorant, prejudiced or uninformed. They have lived a different life which has created a dissimilar world view; and it might be that they are just as perplexed by my odd views as I am by theirs.

I think that is a difficult thing to accept: that issues, ideas, and ways of thinking which challenge us are nonetheless valid for others. And yet I think accepting that reality is the only way we can ever truly move past a condescending tolerance to true respect. By that I mean not just being willing to concede a “dumb opinion,” but being able to see that life has shaped an alternative viewpoint; one which is valid in its own way.

In no way does that mean I have to relinquish my own world view. I do however have to broaden my understanding to include the notion that a diversity of opinions, priorities, values, and attitudes come from a diversity of experiences, needs and responses. Some may be similar to mine, but many may not be. So I am challenged to explore and accept the subjectivity of my world view. In so doing, maybe I can achieve some deeper understanding and clarity.

My opinions are my opinions. And as much as I like to surround myself with people who often think along similar lines, that is no proof of universality or indisputable application. There are alternative opinions and options. My challenge then becomes realizing that, and letting go of my claim to absolutism. Having an opinion in no way reflects veracity. Opinions may be false, even mine own.

So discussion becomes important. Sharing opinions becomes important. Sharing experiences becomes important. Listening to the stories of others becomes important. Valuing the reality of dissimilar life experiences becomes important. That way we can truly expand our world view to be more inclusive and comprehensive.
Martin Buber put it this way: What if we went into a conversation willing to be converted rather than determined to convert the other? Interesting notion. Maybe that’s the difference between tolerance and respect: truly valuing the other opinion, and being willing to re-think and reconsider. I think that’s tough work. We are often unaware and so invested in our own world view that we are reluctant to examine or re-examine.

So why be afraid of controversial issues? Welcome them as opportunities to grow and to live out our values. They may be the best way to learn and to practice real respect. Perhaps we can better accomplish that by pausing before entering into a conflict to be more self-aware, to reflect on who we are and how we have become who we are, and to acknowledge that others have travelled a different path.

Enjoy – Greg