This last semester, a group of Auckland university friends and myself attended a rally on campus to help launch a student pro-life group. Whenever students seek to form a club under the umbrella of the University’s Student Association, advocates must do so at an annual forum where votes are petitioned from those who are present. It is an interesting and cumbersome way to establish clubs, but it does guarantee a colourful event. And with an issue as controversial as abortion, you can imagine the intensity of debate.
In the end, however, opponents were able to gather more support against the club through successfully derailing the discussion. Instead of a debate about whether students should be able to establish a pro-life club, the merits of abortion were instead trumpeted. While it was heartening that pro-life advocates did not resort to the kind of personal attacks or irrelevant arguments that the other side did (the common complaints: “The morality of abortion should only be discussed among woman”, “Denying women the right to abortion is a form of religious oppression”, etc) I was reminded of how important it is that Christians are effective communicators.
Recently, I came across the excellent Life Training Institute Blog, and a post by Josh Brahm about effective dialogue and different tactics in conversation. To illustrate, Brahm recounts a conversation he overheard between a pro-choicer and a pro-lifer (‘Charlie’):
The pro-choicer made a comment along the lines of, “I don’t like abortion, but if it’s made illegal, women will be hurt in back-alley abortions.”
Charlie’s response? “So you think we should legalize murder?” (Add a hint of combative attitude to the tone, and you’ve got the picture.)
Now, I know where Charlie was going with this – he wanted to explain that we shouldn’t make or keep immoral things legal to make the crime safer for the felon. For example, we wouldn’t make murder legal to make things easier and safer for murderers, because murder is wrong. Unfortunately, our pro-choice friend who had probably never explored that logic, misunderstood where Charlie was going with this.
Instead, he responded, “Now, that’s called a strawman argument. That has nothing to do with what I just said.”
So to be clear, Charlie hadn’t made a strawman argument; he just wasn’t very clear in his argumentation.
I wasn’t able to hear all of Charlie’s response, but it was basically a second try at responding to the original pro-choice objection, and it still had that same combative tone. Then the pro-choicer starts talking about red herrings. He obviously wasn’t getting it, and he stormed off before I could catch him to continue the discussion.
Several hours later I was eating lunch with Charlie and another young volunteer, when the subject of effective dialogue came up.
I started by explaining how sometimes we hear an argument that we’ve heard over and over, like the back-alley thing, and we want to zero in for that “gotcha” moment. I added, “But in one-on-one conversations, we need to remember to take people slowly through our argument, making sure we make a clear case, and avoid asking pointed questions that will make the person feel defensive.”
Brahm then goes on to suggest a helpful distinction that Steve Wagner, another experienced pro-life communicator, has defined between “I get you” responses and “gotcha” replies. “Gotcha” answers are concise one-liners that are designed to stump the opposition. In formal debates, media interviews and hit and run conversations, quick answers and sound bite-shaped responses are the best weapons. If you’re unable to summarize why your point is true and your opponent’s is false, you lose.
However, in different contexts “gotcha” answers can be counter-productive. People will not want to dialogue if they feel humiliated or that they’re being led into a trap. Wagner explains:
I take time with each person. I try to let them have multiple opportunities to explain themselves. I don’t “move in for the kill.” While I ask tough questions, I’m also content to let some false statements or arguments go unanswered. I don’t always have to have the last word. Why? Because I think communicating to each person the phrase, “I get you,” is more important than making sure everyone else knows “I gotcha.” It’s one of the essential skills we teach every pro-life advocate: Listen to understand rather than to refute.
It’s good advice. And not just relevant for conversations about abortion. In apologetic practice, we can find ourselves over-emphasizing the importance of finding initial entry points and common ground but it is often just as crucial to think about where we are going in the conversation.