Chicago’s O’Hare airport is one of my least favorite places. I try to avoid it, but as a frequent flyer who lives in Dayton, I sometimes don’t have much of a choice. I don’t like flying through O’Hare because there are so often delays and flight cancellations. It’s commonly the case that my flights are delayed two or three times. Today it was a cancellation. “Aircraft maintenance,” they said. It doesn’t really matter. Time for dinner and three hours or so in one of those comfy vinyl seats by the gate.
One gate over, a would-be passenger just lost it. “Shut up!” he yelled at the poor gate agent behind the desk. “Shut up!” Then he just put his head down on the desk, a gesture of total defeat.
I get it. I’ve been there. No, I’ve never blown up at a gate agent, and I certainly don’t think it was right of him to take his frustration out on her, but I get it. It’s not just one thing that evokes this kind of reaction. It’s one thing piled up on top of two or three or four other things. All you want to do is get home. You’ve been working hard, sleeping in hotels, eating salty restaurant food. You think you might make it home for dinner and see the kids before they get into bed. Then your 5:30 flight is delayed until 7:30. Oh, wait–the 7:30 is cancelled. They have you on another flight for 10:20, and you have to move to another gate. Frustrations pile up, and pretty soon you’re feeling like a raw nerve.
Let’s call this accumulation of frustrations “airport syndrome.” Of course, it doesn’t just happen in airports. It happens in any area of life where we experience common frustrations and setbacks. In fact, I see it in a good bit of our UMC discourse. If you follow the denominational politics, no matter where you find yourself on the theological/ideological spectrum, frustration can set in. A story in the Reporter, a vitriolic Facebook post, a thoughtless comment from a friend, and you might find yourself feeling pretty raw. Many people have checked out of the conversation for just this reason. I can’t say I blame them.
I recently unapproved a “pingback” on my blog. I’ve never unapproved a pingback, but it was to a blog post that was more like a public temper tantrum than a productive set of arguments and ideas. I approve virtually every comment and pingback that appears on my blog because I believe in free and open public discourse. I value arguments, whether I agree with them or not, insofar as they are offered in the spirit of productive dialogue and intellectual virtue. I’ve come to believe, however, that the free exchange of ideas can be more harmful than helpful, depending upon our mode of discourse.
I’ve blogged before on intellectual virtue and on unproductive methods of public discourse. It’s not enough simply to say what we think. Some ways of arguing are productive while others are not. Intellectual virtue involves courage, carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, intellectual honesty, and intellectual humility. Intellectual vice involves the opposite of these and can cause great harm.
Since I wrote those posts, however, I’ve reflected quite a bit on what it means to have not simply responsible public discourse, but responsible Christian public discourse. Christian public discourse should involve not only intellectual virtue, but Christian virtue. We can debate about exactly what Christian virtue looks like, but perhaps a good starting point is Gal 5:22-23, which lists the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). As Christians, we should receive the Holy Spirit into every aspect of our lives, including the way in which we publicly engage with people with whom we disagree. What we sometimes see in our public engagement, however, looks nothing like the fruit of the Spirit. Paul lists enmity, strife, anger, quarrelling, dissension, and factions among the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-20). Sound familiar? Likewise Peter reminds believers, “Rid yourselves of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander” (1 Pet 2:1).
I’m not talking about the kinds of rhetorical flourishes that we sometimes see in good writing, nor am I saying that we should water down our opinions and positions in order to become totally innocuous and inoffensive. There is, however, a difference between arguing forcefully and arguing harmfully, and most of us know the difference when we see it.
Just to clarify, I know that at times I’ve been guilty of the very thing I’m criticizing, and I apologize for that. I have tried to avoid this way of arguing, though I haven’t always been successful.
Well, it’s time to wrap up this little meditation. Rain is coming through the roof of the airport now. It’s dripping onto my computer. Oh, and my gate just changed for the second time. I’m beginning to experience airport syndrome again. Lord, in your mercy….