It’s time to have The Conversation™.
I’m going to try to convince you that The Problem™ is a problem, marshalling as many statistics and anecdotes as I can muster to get you on My Side™. You, having Done Your Own Research™, will counter with your own articles and sources, which I will object are misleading in ways that are hard to explain without getting into The Data™.
An hour later we will be frustrated and tired as I desperately try to explain why words like “selection bias” and “conditioning on post-treatment variables” apply to the study you’ve cited claiming that Everything Is Fine™ and you insist I’m reading too much into it. We won’t have any time left to talk about common ground or finding solutions, but that’s okay because the first step is getting you on The Right Side™.
There are a lot of questions I care about and wish my faith community did too — racism in the church, COVID vaccines, climate change, immigration and so on. And I think the best way to get the church to talk more about important problems is to start conversations about them.
But I’m only just now starting to recognize the difference between “having conversations” and “having The Conversation™”.
A math friend once told me he doesn’t feel like he understands a class until he takes “the next one”, and I think there’s real truth to this — there’s value and importance in learning about a topic, but there’s a whole lot that doesn’t really sink in until you apply what you’ve learned to something else.
When I took physics in high school, the “electricity and magnetism” part of the class covered lots of theory about things like circuits, resistors, and capacitors. And the theoretical parts were important — the various equations, after all, are a fundamental piece of how the world works.
But you know what really helped me understand how charge and voltage and all that stuff works? The hour where our teacher handed us a bunch of wires, batteries, aluminum foil, CDs, books, and wax paper and said “go build a capacitor.”
Suddenly the diagrams and equations weren’t just squiggly lines on a page, but something real that we had to apply to something we could actually touch. “Correct” and “wrong” were no longer abstract concepts corresponding to grades and not much else — if we did it right, we’d see our capacitor working. If we didn’t, then we wouldn’t. The theoretical had become concrete.
I think there is a human need to see ideas in context to really understand them, and I think my ignorance of this fact has been behind the failure of my “trying to start conversations” approach to communicating moral lessons I’ve learned. I’ve been acting as though racism and climate change and global poverty are purely intellectual problems and the way to get people to care about them is to say “here’s why I think climate change is real” or “this is why I believe in systemic racism” or “here are 50 bible verses about what we owe the global poor.”
But these conversations seem to involve a lot of “feeling like I’m defending the ‘right’ values” and not a lot of seeing how to apply them or why the quest to do so might be compelling. People who start out disagreeing with me rarely change their minds because of this kind of discussion, and the rest of us are so focused on proving that problems exist that we devote little if any effort to sharing ideas of what we might do about them or discovering where we ourselves might need to repent.
When I look at my own moral journey, the interactions I’ve grown the most from haven’t looked like “somebody trying to convince me a position is correct” so much as “somebody letting me into their journey to live out their values.”
I didn’t start to care about global poverty because of A Conversation™ with somebody who’d found exactly the right argument to prove that I should change the way I think. I started to care because I had friends who did, and they invited me into conversations about applying their values: “I’m trying to decide where I should donate this extra money I have. Do you have any ideas?” or “I have been taking bucket showers to keep the DR drought on my mind and in my prayers, and I can’t decide if this is an act of solidarity or a waste of time. What do you think?” or “I’m really upset about [event causing mass suffering] and I need somebody to talk to.” Rather than feeling attacked, I felt welcomed into discussions where they didn’t need to defend their values because I could see their inherent goodness working in my friends’ lives.
I didn’t learn to care about sexism through careful statistical analysis, or from arguing with my feminist friends in high school. I learned because women I cared about trusted me enough to include me in conversations about their struggles with and attempts to deal with harassment and belittlement and objectification and so many other problems I hadn’t had eyes to see until they were pointed out. My friends weren’t focused on “teaching me about sexism” — they were inviting me into “the next conversation”, one which took the reality of what they were dealing with for granted and moved me from “defensively trying to defend a position” to “trying to understand how best to love my friend,” which was a key step on the way to “trying to understand how best to support women who weren’t my friends.”
Similarly, I didn’t come to fully affirm my LGBT friends and neighbors through The Conversation™ as it usually happens in the church (a bunch of random bible verses thrown back and forth.) The biblical arguments for full LGBT inclusion in the church are ambiguous enough that it’s pretty easy to convince yourself “the bible is on your side” no matter which side you’re on. What finally convinced me to repent and fully affirm my LGBT friends was worshipping and working alongside them, observing spiritual fruit borne in their lives not “in addition to” their identities, but specifically through them, seeing with my own eyes the Holy Spirit working much more deeply than almost anyone I’d ever seen. This happened because we had full, three-dimensional conversations about their identities and lives, not because we had “the LGBT debate” and they won.
And what finally led me to think carefully about my role in climate change was a series of discussions with friends who cared deeply about its effect on the global poor. These conversations weren’t about convincing me to do something — rather, my friends were trying to reason out which changes in their own lives might be most effective, and invited my input. Rather than an argument, this was mutually constructive: my experience thinking about effectiveness helped my friends make decisions, and their moral clarity and direction both inspired and convicted me to take my own actions and culpability more seriously.
So if I want people to grow in the ways I’ve grown, I think I need to do a lot less arguing and a lot more applying. Less “here’s why I’m right” and more “here’s a question that’s important to me we figure out together.” Less “agree with my worldview” and more “walk this walk with me.” A few ideas have come to mind so far:
Framing: instead of a “do you believe in X?” or “do you think X is important?” conversation, starting a “what do you think we can do about X?”
Sincerity: actually listening to what other people say and learning from it, rather than “listening to respond.” You’ll understand your friend (and how to love them) better, and might be convicted of something you could change.
Patience: not every conversation needs to be “the big one,” and you might not see the fruits immediately. One of the biggest moments in my “conversion” towards Effective Altruism came after a summer missions trip, when a friend asked me whether I thought paying for a group of college students to travel was the best way to do good with the money we’d raised. She listened attentively to my answer and didn’t press the point, but I thought about it for a long time afterwards.
Creativity: the question doesn’t always have to be “here’s why we should care about the global poor.” Maybe it can be “I read a really cool paper this week about the effects of this nonprofit” or “I’m trying to spend less money on food. Do you have any advice?” or “Can we pray about the violence in Ethiopia this week?”. Give people a chance to care about things that are important to you!
Specificity: instead of “our current immigration policy is evil”, it might be easier to discuss something more concrete — e.g. “I’m really upset that so many of the refugees we’re requiring to Remain in Mexico are being assaulted and killed. Is there anything we as a church can do to help them?”
Maybe this will work, and maybe it won’t. But what I’m currently doing doesn’t seem to be working, so at the very least it’s worth a try.