It’s a strange time we’re living in. Most of what I read online thrives on controversy, on mockery, and on riling others up into a froth. Young people today, I’m noticing, live in this world where the most offended wins, where the mocker wins, and where every conversation begins with the drama of the day. Controversy and quarrels gain followers and attention. Mockery and cynicism give a seat at the table on most social media platforms. But is it productive? Is it good? Does it change anyone’s mind?
As a Christian and as an instructor of rhetoric, I think about these things more and more as I see a changing communication climate that prevents real transformation and healing.
I’ve been talking to my daughters about this culture of controversy. And this morning, I read the Proverbs to share the wisdom I must apply to my heart now daily. I learn that the Lord hates a man “who stirs up dissension” (Proverbs 6:19) and that a wise person “holds his tongue” instead (Proverbs 11:12) and also “overlooks and insult” (Proverbs 12:16) instead of showing his annoyance. I share with my daughters how Solomon taught that there is “joy for those who promote peace” (Proverbs 12:20). I tell them that “pleasant words promote instruction” (Proverbs 16:21).
I think about how “lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel” (Proverbs 20:15). I think about how “mockers stir up a city, but wise men turn away anger” (Proverbs 29:8). What about how a “fool gives vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control” (Proverbs 29:11)?
It’s easy to fight, to mock, and to rile others up. It’s harder to love and promote peace and real change. Instead of stirring up dissension, speaking with anger in order to create controversy or draw attention to ourselves, Proverbs teaches us to speak peacefully and with wise instruction. We speak to bless, teach, warn, defend. Our goal is always to promote healing, well-being, and peace. And when we do see injustice or wrongdoing? Well, our motives should be to speak up, according to Proverbs 31:8-9, for “those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” We are indeed supposed to “speak up and judge fairly. . . to defend the rights of the poor and needy.” How do I do this while still promoting peace?
I ask myself if my comments as a teacher or community member are more about creating controversy or promoting peace. I ask myself if I’m in the seat of mockers. I ask myself if I care more about the issue at hand–and the people affected– or my own voice in the debate. And I pray that I become an agent of peace and wisdom, never mockery.
The wisdom of Solomon rings true today in the study of rhetoric and how we enter into controversy. When you want to truly change someone’s mind or become an agent for change in the culture, you speak from a position of love and with the best interest of the audience in mind. You find common ground. You listen well to the opposing viewpoint. You speak respectfully and peacefully to create the communication climate where others will listen, engage, and perhaps change their minds. You’ve moved them from a reactive brain state to a responsive one. And you’ve promoted peace instead of the fury of dissension.
I’ve won a thousand arguments as a national debater, orator, and generally logical person, but I’ve rarely changed someone’s mind through my sarcasm, mockery, or ability to create controversy. Winning arguments isn’t the same thing as persuading someone. I’d rather persuade than win.