It may be the talk show culture, or perhaps the media version of fairness in reporting, or the silly season that we are entering in presidential politics, but it is more than just a short term phenomena. It has even shown up in a couple of academic book reviews I have come across, normally places where ideas are discussed on their own merits. I am talking about the practice of trashing someone simply because of disagreement with their opinion. What is it that drags us back to our Junior High years where we would disagree with someone simply because we didn't like him or like what he was doing or how he looked? Or worse, where we would discover something about him to dislike because we didn't agree with him?
Then we wonder why our attempts at communication fail so often!
When I was trained to argue, the most important element was to thoroughly grasp the opponent's position – from the inside, as it were. We worked as hard as we could to understand the idea so that, if called on, we could argue its merits as strongly as we could our own. I loved playing devil's advocate! It taught me to separate ideas from the people who held them - a very important skill if you love people but can't understand why they do what they do or think what they think. I learned to respect people while disagreeing with what they thought.
The other side of this forced me to examine my own ideas with the same objective rigor. This is a bit more difficult. What I think, is right, because I think it! It came as quite a shock to me to discover that some of the things I thought, were wrong. Or at least didn't have any basis in fact. I quickly learned that it was far better for me to discover that on my own than have it pointed out in the middle of a debate!
Why does this matter? It matters on all kinds of levels publicly. But the most important level on which it matters is that of evangelism. If you can't see the person behind the ideas, you will never be able to communicate the gospel of Christ to them. And let us be very clear. Jesus died for people. Even people who are wrong about some things. Like me. And you.