Let me offer just a few words of context. I reject the notion that any of us should simply "agree to disagree" when the actual fate of people we are called to love is at stake. If we're convinced we have an important truth to share, we do no one a favor by hiding it or obscuring it in an effort to be nice. What love calls for is honest debate that avoid psychological manipulation and seeks instead to illuminate truth. We are called to share why we believe in ways that may move others if our reasons are as compelling as we think they are, and may expose the weaknesses in our thinking when they're not as compelling as we think.
One question that arises in this context is the place of emotions and emotional appeals in loving debates. After exploring an example of an illicit appeal to disgust (an example I addressed a few years back in this blog entry), I move to a broader discussion of the place of emotions in loving discourse and debate. Without further ado, the excerpt:
Appeals to misleading emotions are one of the most potent forms of improper manipulation, and the appeal to disgust is just an example. Consider a slightly more complex case involving shame, fear of ridicule, and the desire for belonging. Suppose I’m having a conversation with several people, talking about my gay best friend, and I notice that one member of the group—call her Jane—starts to shift uncomfortably. She finally asks how I deal with the biblical passages that condemn homosexuality. Imagine that I respond with something like the following: “You don’t actually think homosexuality is wrong, do you? I mean, that’s ridiculous! This is the twenty-first century. You’re smarter than that, right?”
Such a comment is designed to manipulate Jane with the fear of appearing a fool. Instead of inviting an open sharing of perspectives, it shuts down such sharing. A hint of flattery—“you look smarter than the kind of person who would think that”—is really a basis for invoking the specter of public shame. More often than not, the person most influenced by such a tactic may not be Jane, but the fence-sitting bystander—let’s call him Joe—who hasn’t thought much about the topic but sincerely longs to belong. The more he witnesses those with another view being shamed and silenced, the more he gravitates to the socially safest choice. At its worst this strategy can generate an arms-race of shame, in which each side of the debate escalates the social costs of rejecting their view in order to ensure that siding with them represent the socially safest choice. The winner of such an arms race has done nothing to illuminate truth.
While invoking misleading emotional responses for persuasive purposes is inimical to debating issues in a spirit of love, this does not mean that our discussions and debates should be divorced from our feelings. Not every emotion is an irrelevant emotion.
Sometimes a compelling story generates a strong emotional response, and the reason is because the story has stimulated our capacity for empathy. We are suddenly in the shoes of another person, feeling what it’s like to be them. Our eyes tear up because we vicariously feel their suffering. We smile because we suddenly understand their joy as if it were our own.
That kind of emotional resonance is crucial for loving our neighbors as ourselves, because it gives genuine insight. We can’t make wise decisions about how to love our neighbors if we can’t empathize with how they feel, if we can’t discern the truth about what it is like to be in their situation.
Sometimes, in disagreements and debates, what we have to offer is a way of looking at an issue that invites and encourages this sort of empathy, thereby eliciting an emotional response. That emotional response is hardly irrelevant, because it is part of the insight into truth. If I didn’t feel some vicarious anguish at the story of a mother who can’t produce enough milk to feed her baby, that means I’m not seeing the truth about her situation.
Likewise, there are some emotional responses to the experiences of others—compassion for those who suffer, anger at injustice—whose absence betrays a failure to appreciate what is going on. While our emotions are tricky, there is a strong intellectual tradition that sees them as having cognitive content: emotions are about something. Anger, for example, is a response to a perceived wrong. If injustice does not anger us, if it’s just some fact about the world that our intellect tells us is wrong, then a part of us has failed to see that it’s wrong. Our emotional selves have become blinded to the injustice, and so we aren’t discerning the injustice with our whole selves.
In discussion or debate, part of our aim might be to awaken others’ emotional selves to a truth they have failed to see (even if their intellects have discerned it). In other words, we might not limit ourselves to making an intellectually dispassionate case that something is unjust. We might go further, looking for an analogy or image or narrative that helps to expose the outrageousness of the injustice. This is not an appeal to an irrelevant emotion, but rather a way of extending the intellectual argument beyond the merely academic, theoretical level. It’s a way of helping the heart, and not just the mind, to see.
But because the emotions can be misled—because some rhetoricians have the power to paint something as outrageous even when no wrong has been done—it is best to wed such emotion-evoking arguments to more intellectual ones, to argue in a way that awakens the heart along with the mind, as opposed to awakening the heart alone (while, perhaps, the mind is kept deliberately asleep so the heart can be more easily led astray).
Christian love, whatever else it is, is emotional. To love our neighbors as ourselves is to feel for them and to feel with them. Any strategy of debate and argument that is cut off from our emotions is therefore at odds with the very nature of Christian love. But truth-oriented arguments that extend to our emotional selves are not the same as manipulative ones that evoke emotions in order to confuse and obscure and misdirect. Love calls for the former, and rules out the latter.