Part 1 – Don’t Speak
Daniel Lowe shares with us the first of three posts which were originally shared with his community via the school newsletter.
Have you ever had one of those moments in a conversation when you wanted to say something but then decided not to? Perhaps you weren’t quick enough to formulate a reply? Perhaps you just weren’t sure what to say? Or maybe you were worried about what reaction your comment might get. Not all of us are as quick on our feet as we might like when it comes to debating ideas and there is something to be said for the delayed and considered response. And speaking in ignorance rarely adds much to a discussion. But it seems that more and more often what stops us from sharing our thoughts is the fear of being declared out of step, or worse, ‘problematic’ by those we are in conversation with. And there is no doubt that expressing a religious view on a topic is more likely to elicit a rapid condemnation.
We have seen this play out publicly with high profile figures such as Andrew Thorburn and Margaret Court and these public stoushes set the tone for all of us. As author, Mark Sayers, puts it “You can reach levels of blistering hipness, gain position within a key industry, hold an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular culture, throw yourself into the great justice causes of the day, and still your belief in the second culture values of faith will see you viewed as beyond the pale.” (Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience).
That is not to suggest that a religious view should have some sort of privileged position. We live in a complex and diverse society where many different worldviews are represented, and we need to learn to navigate that space together. And a critical part of that work will be equipping our young people with the skills to discuss controversial issues and engage in meaningful and respectful conversations about issues that matter. So why does our cultural milieu seem to run so counter to this goal?
Social psychologist and author, Jonathan Haidt, suggests that in perpetuating what he calls three great untruths which are hindering healthy discourse and understanding, we are doing ourselves a great harm. The three untruths can be summarized by three statements:
- “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”.
- “Always trust your feelings”.
- “Life is a battle between good people and evil people”.
Over the course of three posts, I want to explore how each of these untruths can be seen being played out and what an alternative picture might look like.
The first untruth, the “Untruth of Fragility” centres around the idea that people are inherently fragile and need protection from discomforting ideas. I have written in previous Grammarians about the concept of children being ‘antifragile’. Just like bones and muscles need to be used and pushed to stay strong, and the immune system must be exposed to pathogens to remain in tip-top shape, kids’ psyches need to be challenged to keep them balanced and healthy.
Our well-intentioned desire to shield young people from the possible ‘trauma’ of confronting and challenging topics actually risks causing them more harm. In Haidt’s words, “By over-protecting our children we are setting them up to be weak, to be more easily damaged, to be more easily discouraged”.
The first step in equipping a young person to engage in healthy, robust, and respectful conversation is to expose them to ideas that may challenge them, opinions that they might disagree with, and to help them see that wrestling with these ideas will strengthen them, not harm them. Of course, some protective boundaries are needed. Consideration still needs to be given to things like age and developmental appropriateness. Just as we don’t let teenagers get behind the wheel of a car unsupervised, in the same way young people need adults to help them navigate controversial topics.
That is one of the reasons I love teaching Ethics. Like learning to drive, subjects like Ethics, Philosophy, History and English guide students through the process of engaging with conflicting ideas in a safe, supportive, and supervised context. It might be challenging and even uncomfortable for students at times, but it is far more likely to strengthen than harm them. Imagine if P.E. teachers stopped running sports classes because we didn’t want students to experience physical discomfort?
When we go too far in sheltering our young people from ideas that we disagree with or worldviews that make us uncomfortable, we inadvertently tell them that they are too fragile to cope with them and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1995 Gwen Stefani, lead singer of the band No Doubt, sang, “Don’t speak, I know just what you’re sayin’, So please stop explainin’, Don’t tell me ’cause it hurts.” She may have been talking about a failed relationship, but those words capture the mindset that comes from believing the untruth of fragility. ‘Your ideas make me uncomfortable, and I am too fragile to cope with them so you mustn’t speak them’. Is this really how we want our young people to respond to each other?
The idea of anti-fragility is not a new one. Consider what the Apostle Paul says about suffering: “…because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5). The discomfort of encountering conflicting ideas builds strength. But simply being willing to encounter new and potentially challenging ideas is only the first step in equipping young people to engage in respectful conversation. In the next article, I will look at the implications of Haidt’s second great untruth – that we should always trust our feelings.
In the meantime, Paul’s advice is this, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6)