Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Disagreement, Misunderstanding and Deception

Hmmm. Those are some words that can get people's blood boiling.

I've been thinking about these terms lately and how they affect our interactions with each other.


Disagreement is common and fairly on the surface. You know - red state vs. blue state - whatever. People have different philosophies, different principles, etc., although it is surprising how often people agree on the principles (and don't necessarily realize it) but disagree about methods and implementation.

I think misunderstandings are hugely underestimated. Emotions get in our way of listening carefully, we rush to judgment based on a few things we hear, people don't speak carefully, people don't read carefully and on and on and on. I've had the experience on a number of occasions of observing people working themselves into a frenzy over a perceived injustice, error or whatever that really didn't exist - or sometimes existed to a much smaller degree than was believed. Once an argument between two people was related to me by both people separately afterwards. What they related to me was identical word for word, except one - one said "don't" but the other one thought she said "do".

Anyway, it was partly Shakespeare's powerful Othello (the movie with Kenneth Branagh is excellent by the way, though rated R for good reason) that got me thinking of this communication thing. The idea that someone can be so thoroughly deceived by someone's evil plottings is frightening, but very real. How gullible are we? How many people in politics and the media would be willing to deliberately deceive us, or be used as a tool by those who would? Do we have our "skeptometers" (as my brother-in-law likes to say) in good working order? (Othello goes a lot deeper than this, of course. My sister recently blogged on this.)

But looking at it from a different angle, we can also see many ways in which we as humans unintentionally or carelessly deceive each other and thus contribute to the chaos. Rumors and urban legends are extremely common (especially on hot button issues like religion, politics and morality - but also on smaller levels within families, communities, workplaces). "Good" politicians tell white lies to get elected and there sometimes seems to be a tyranny of good intentions (this, as I understand it, comes up on all sides of the political spectrum) - people are judged or frowned on for shopping at the wrong store or not supporting the "acceptable" politician (or even daring to criticize the "good" politician for telling white lies).

These things are all symptomatic of a "disease" we all share - fallen nature. So how do we handle all this confusion? Here are a few ideas:

- Avoid and discourage gossip. Not only is it ugly, but it's so often inaccurate in essential ways.

- Learn what urban legends are and investigate things before passing them along to others. Make sure your facts are accurate when you (particularly in public) criticize politicians, organizations, businesses, etc. Don't just assume the person you got your info from did their homework.

- Teach your children to read and listen carefully. Not just simply suspiciously, but charitably - calmly trying to understand what someone is saying and thinking before either rushing to judgment or being drawn in by their arguments. It can be awfully helpful to think of this as two separate and distinct steps - 1. Understand what someone is saying. 2. Decide if you agree or not.

- Listen carefully and be sure you understand something before you act on it. Among friends and family, asking things like "So are you saying..." can be awfully helpful sometimes. Giving the person time to explain what they are thinking before being shocked or offended can help too.

Here is a favorite quote from St. Ignatius Loyola on the occasion of the Council of Trent, which was called by the Church to respond to the Protestant Reformation...

Be slow, not prompt, to speak in the Council. Be charitable in your opinions and considerate of what others mean to say, even if they have not said it. Take pains to look at the spirit and intentions of the speakers, and in this way learn when to be silent and when to speak. Above all, you must speak in such a manner that you shall not stir dissension but always encourage peace.

(This is as quoted in the Vision book St. Ignatius and the Company of Jesus - there is a more complete reference here)

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