Monday, March 26, 2007

Agreeing to Disagree

For several years I have subscribed to World magazine, a weekly news magazine like Time or Newsweek, but written from a Christian perspective. Normally I enjoy, or at least appreciate, their take on things. However, the current issue has an article about urban living that really made my blood boil. The author, Mindy Belz, waxes rhapsodic about urban environments and disparages the suburbs. She speaks of being “moored in tracts of pavement on an empty retail prairie, forgettable constellations of congestion and sameness.” But, hey! I like the suburbs. I like the area where I live and I don’t like highly urban areas. This article really got under my skin, and I started to wonder why. Then I realized that she was making no room for differing tastes and life experiences. The message was simply: “City good, Suburb bad.”

As I thought about it a bit more it occurred to me that this is a common mistake we make. We take preferences and turn them into moral judgments. For instance, when I was a kid a lot of adults complained about rock music. But instead of saying they didn’t care for it, they said it’s just noise, not music, and only a bunch of degenerates would listen to garbage like that. Nice conversation starter, huh?

I hate bananas. Don’t ask me why; I just do. The smell of them makes me nauseous. This has been the occasion for a lot of jokes in my family, but they realize they don’t have to “convert me” to a banana lover. And I’m not trying to talk them out of eating bananas. We can agree to disagree about the fruits we like. Why can’t we do that with the kind of neighborhoods we like or the music we listen to? Why do we have to condemn those with different tastes? There are more than enough important issues we disagree about without making up extra ones that really don’t matter.

Humans are naturally prideful and self-centered. We want to make ourselves the gold standard for everyone else. So without even realizing it we often take our personal preferences and turn them into moral standards by which we judge others. When we think about it, of course we realize this is wrong. But the opposite mistake is just as bad. We must not treat important moral issues as mere personal preferences. This is the source of much conflict in our society today. At the heart of such classic cultural battles as abortion and homosexuality is a disagreement over whether these are moral issues or mere personal preference. Take abortion, for instance. Central to the question of whether it should be illegal or not is the question of whether it is wrong. It’s amazing to me how often this fundamental question is glossed over. Too often the issue is framed merely in terms of the politics of power. I won’t go into my own position on that today. I just want to suggest that whenever we disagree on some issue, it is important to ask ourselves whether we are dealing with a moral issue or merely personal preference.

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