“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”–Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
Times have been worse in America. Much worse. After Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860, the Southern states resolved to secede. They were dead serious about their #notmypresident hashtag, and we know how that worked out.
In his first inaugural address, Lincoln made one last, desperate plea for unity. He told the South that they had registered no oath in heaven to destroy the Union, while he had taken a sacred oath to defend it. He told them that they would have war only if they wanted war. He appealed to everybody to stand down and consider the things that bound them together rather than the things that drove them apart. It was his last pitch for the Union, and though it was not successful, his words still matter.
We are nowhere near where the country was in 1861, but the recent election has made a lot of people upset. I know because I am one of them. While nowhere near the most contentious election in our history (I would rate it around 6th or 7th), it has been divisive and will likely continue to be so for the foreseeable future. It has been hard on families. On communities. On Churches. For a lot of Latter-day Saints, that whole “one heart and one mind” thing is taking a beating.
I have often found that, when major divisions appear within a community, our tribal human natures take over and push us onto the horns of a decidedly false dichotomy: either we 1) consolidate into ideological tribes and push out anyone who disagrees (once this involved secession; now it mainly involves unfriending people on Facebook); or 2) we decide, for the sake of the larger tribe, to suppress our disagreements and fall into line. Both of these options are disastrous, both politically and spiritually.
Like all false dichotomies, however, this is generally presented as a true dichotomy, and anyone arguing against one end is assumed to be promoting the other end. This works in both directions. Those who say, “we need to protest and argue for our position” are met with cries of, “Why can’t you accept the results of the election and stop trying to keep the nation divided?” On the other hand, those who say, “let’s try to treat each other more kindly” are told, “How dare you ask me to give up all of my principles and move on?”
But in between Tribalism A and Tribalism B is a third way that I call “Vigorously Arguing Your Position Without Being a Hateful Jerk.” It is completely possible to argue directly, persuasively, and relentlessly for a position without treating the people you are arguing with like enemies, or like morally and intellectually deficient sub-human beings unworthy of your contempt.
This is actually pretty hard because it goes against several important components of human nature. It is much easier to assume that everybody who disagrees with me is crazy, stupid, or evil—and to tell them so with anger and sarcasm. It is also much easier to avoid conflict altogether so we don’t have to feel anxiety. Both positions are completely natural: we call one “fight” and the other one “flight,” and human beings are wired to meet every conflict with one of these two options. So are squirrels.
Several years ago (right after the 2012 election, actually), I worked out a few basic characteristics of what I then called “arguing as friends.” I have since also suggested that they might be considered characteristics of “Zion people,” who are the only kind of people who can actually build Zion.  Just in case you missed them, here they are again:
- They understand that people disagree with each other because we all see the world through different filters and assumptions and not because they are crazy, stupid, or evil. Most people are remarkably bad at this. Our own opinions seem so right to us that we cannot imagine another person not seeing things our way unless they are either misinformed or fundamentally flawed. In the abstract, we acknowledge that human diversity is a good thing, but with the concrete issues that we care about the most, we rarely see diversity as a strength.
- They care more about human relationship than about winning arguments: Most people don’t mind being disagreed with, at least in theory, but we resent being belittled, insulted, and trivialized. Unfortunately, however, we are wired to perceive any challenge to our beliefs as a challenge to our legitimacy as human beings. The only way around this is to very clearly communicate respect when disagreeing with other people.
- They try to understand actual points of disagreement: Most people do most of their arguing with themselves, which is to say that we create a mental image of another person’s position and spend our time responding to it rather than to what the other person is actually saying. But Zion requires mutual understanding. To be Zion people, we must interact with each other as fully formed children of God and not as shallow caricatures of a human perspective. Here is a rule for disagreeing with people that, in my experience, never leads to the loss of a friend: never disagree with somebody’s position until you can paraphrase that position back to the person who holds it in such a way that they say, “yes, that is exactly what I meant.”
- They recognize their own biases. We all have them. We are all situated in a context, we all have interests, and we all have biases that affect how we structure arguments and admit evidence. We can’t ever become unbiased (there is no not having a perspective), but we can try to recognize what our biases are and compensate for them when we are talking to other people whose biases may be very different.
- They forgive. Nobody ever gets these things right all the time. We are very attached to our opinions, and we often get carried away defending our beliefs. We will overreact. We will say things that we don’t mean. We will take things personally. We will say things to hurt people. And people will do the same to us. Zion doesn’t happen when we learn how to interact with each other perfectly; it happens when we learn how to forgive.
These, I think, are the ground rules of the kind of political and religious disagreements that can actually improve the world. They allow plenty of room for vigorous disagreement, protests, public statements, holding one’s ground, and defending one’s position. They simply require that we recall the “mystic chords of memory” that tie us together as human beings. And they don’t even require that we surrender the battle; they simply require that we try very hard to make sure that the better angels of our nature always show up to the fight.
 I have adapted this list of traits of positive disagreement from my article, “How to Argue with a Friend,” first published on the Internet Voter Network web site on 12/11/13. http://ivn.us/2013/12/11/argue-friend. They appear in my contribution to this awesome book edited by fellow BCC bloggers Tracy McKay-Lamb and Emily W.Jensen.