Kind Criticism: A Guide to Disagreeing Agreeably

“Offendedness is just about the last shared moral currency in our country. And, I’m sorry, but it’s really annoying. We don’t discuss ideas or debate arguments; we try to figure out who is most offended.”- Kevin DeYoung

Yikes. How are we to engage with culture if we are too busy being offended by it? How do we season even our disagreements with kindness and generosity? What is good rhetoric? Here are some wise suggestions from what might strike you as a very surprising source. Daniel Dennett is one of “the Four Horsemen” of New Atheism. And although his worldview is very much at odds with a Christian view of the world, we intend on “walking the talk” by stopping to listen to some of his suggestions on how to create a generous and charitable commentary or critique of an opponent’s argument.

Dennett says:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly, that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement)

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Wise advice indeed. But of course, Dennett is not the first to make these suggestions. Aristotle, the king of formal logic encourages speakers not to be so biased as to avoid a real consideration
of an opponent’s position saying, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Mortimer Adler acknowledges that we must take the time to thoroughly know and understand an opponent’s views, “You must be able to say “I understand,” before you can say “I agree,” or “I disagree,” or “I suspend judgment.”

And most importantly, we see that Scripture encourages this kind of charitable attitude and describes when, how, and why we ought to speak:

“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, (2 Timothy 2:23-25 ESV)

Scripture suggests that there are some conversations that may simply require our silence. Some require gentle critique. But when engaging in every kind of argument servants of God are told that they must always be kind, teachable, patient, and speaking for the benefit of others. Galatians warns that if we do not keep this attitude we begin to get a falsely high view of ourselves and may miss the will of Christ all together:

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (Galatians 6:1-3 ESV)

Perhaps Christian philosopher, Peter Kreeft would add a fifth step to Dennett’s list by applying a filter not only to technique but also to tone:

“The arguer’s tone, sincerity, care, concern, listening, and respect matter as much as his or her logic – probably more. The world was won for Christ not by arguments but by sanctity: “What you are speaks so loud, I can hardly hear what you say.”
Kreeft reiterates the importance of a speaker’s heart and intention when entering into a challenging conversation. He points out how very clearly both reveal themselves in our mannerisms and how, without sanctification, that reveal may be so unattractive to a listener that his/her attention may be lost completely.

At Geneva we train our Dialectic students in formal logic, encouraging their inclination to question. The discussion based atmosphere of our Rhetoric school takes that questioning a step further and teaches students to know when and how to ask. Geneva does not wish to produce students that react, but those that actively listen and thoughtfully respond. Our desire is that upon leaving Geneva, students are prepared to recognize truth in all contexts, even when it is shrouded in inconsistencies, disguised in complexity, or comes from very unexpected sources. We also hope to instill in students the Christ-like humility to be charitable when they experience any amount of friction or hostility. We pray that they would be wise enough to listen also for where they might be mistaken, and are being called to adjust. Geneva strives to disciple men and women who lead to a knowledge of the truth of Christ, not their own.

May we all be examples for them as we pause to listen well, understand thoroughly, see what truth can be gleaned in all conversations, and move forward in hope that all will experience the grace and peace of Christ in their interactions with his church. Amen.

By Bethany Lynam, Geneva Rhetoric School Art