Dealing with those who are just ‘wrong’

op frBy Doug Wingeier • Columnist

Recently my wife and I attended the showing of a documentary film on animal rights. When the floor was opened for comments after the film, two members of the audience made the point that, while the cruel treatment of animals in laboratories and factory farms depicted in the film was deplorable, not all farmers and scientists should be “tarred with the same brush.” Immediately, they were jumped on by several vegans and animal rights activists in the crowd — to the point that one of the dissenters fell silent while the other stormed out in an angry huff, charging that he was being treated disrespectfully.


No dialogue took place. No understanding was gained. Respect for animals was being advocated; but respect for each other as fellow human beings was absent.

In these days of political alienation and religious division, represented in attack ads and shouting matches, such confrontations seem to have become the norm rather than the exception.

Part of the reason for such standoffs is our lack of understanding of the range of ethical/emotional orientations we come from. Basically, there are three of these:

• The right-or-wrong stance. Here we look at things primarily in terms of their effect on me as an individual. If something pleases or rewards me, it’s good. If it harms or offends me, it’s bad. The bad should be punished; the good rewarded. What is fair or good is what works for me; what is unjust or bad is what is hurtful to me. Because we place ourselves at the center of things, we assume others are affected the same way we are, so ought to react as we do. 

Our views of right and wrong have come from the authority figures in our lives, and in turn we assume authority over others. We observe what gets punished, either physically or socially, so avoid or reject it. And, we affirm and adopt what gets rewarded by those we respect, fear, and/or obey. Our personal experience or exposure becomes the yardstick by which we judge others. We can’t really enter into the experience of others or see things from their point of view. We defer to those we regard as having legitimate power and authority, while rejecting those we consider weak or untrustworthy — often simply because they are different from us.

• The in-group stance. What is right and good is what our group values, teaches, upholds, lives by. Good behavior is what pleases or helps our kind of folks, and what is approved and modeled by the groups we belong to — family, political, religious, ethnic, cultural, geographical. We like to belong, be accepted, be praised, be promoted. So what our group affirms as nice, acceptable, praiseworthy, exemplary — that’s what we adopt as the standard for our beliefs and behavior. And that’s what we expect or demand of those outside our group. There are rules and laws, ways of doing things and lines of thinking, that our group has defined as right and proper. Those who abide by them can be our friends; those who don’t are to be avoided or rejected.

• The think-it-over stance. When we venture beyond our own individual experience and the supportive protections of our in-group, we encounter a world of diversity and relativity. We become aware that, because of their varied backgrounds, beliefs, cultures, and experiences, people think and behave differently from us. And, when we are honest, we recognize that there is merit to some of these contrasting views. Our assumptions are challenged; we are forced to question what we’ve always considered to be true and reliable. This can be painful, but at the same time unexpectedly stimulating. Rather than jumping to conclusions based on previously unquestioned authorities, rules, and viewpoints, we find ourselves swimming in uncharted seas. We consider, reflect on and evaluate what we see and hear, and compare it with what we’ve always accepted as the “tried and true.” We are challenged to become open to listen, to learn, and perhaps to change. This starts us moving toward developing principles rather than laws, flexibility rather than certainty, openness rather than rejection, dialogue rather than debate.

We acknowledge in all this is that it is very difficult for those of us taking the right-wrong, in-group, or think-it-over stance to understand and empathize with persons in the other groups. We are so used to assuming the “rightness” of our view that we simply cannot see why anyone could be so “wrong” as to think differently. We can start, however, by recognizing what we all have in common: we are all human beings, made in God’s image, persons of worth — and as such deserving of our respect and effort to hear and try to understand where others are coming from and why they are as they are.

When meeting and talking with each other, here are some suggestions for trying to put this into practice:

• Moderate our voice. Shouting puts others on the defensive. Being loud doesn’t make us right.

•Avoid insults, accusations, name-calling, put-downs, interruptions. This only provokes a response in kind — and the discussion gets nowhere.

• Don’t let ourselves get hooked. Recognize where our hot-buttons are and resist the temptation to become argumentative when they are pushed.

• Stick to the subject. Don’t get flustered or detoured into sidetracks aimed at confusing the issue. 

• Listen before we speak. Rather than thinking of our next rejoinder while the other is talking, be ready to formulate in our words what the other is saying, thereby indicating that they have truly been heard.

• Don’t avoid controversial subjects. Instead, invite discussion with something like, “Tell me what you think about that; I want to learn from you.”

• Affirm the other’s right to be different. Be willing to “agree to disagree,” and thus stay in relationship.

• Know when to change the subject. Say something like: “Let’s put a semicolon in this conversation, and get back to it another time after we’ve thought more about it.”

• Try to remember that no one has all the truth. “We see through a glass darkly.” Our individual, in-group, or think-it-over view of “the truth” might just need some jogging, patching, or expanding from those we tend to write off.

Whether the issue be animal rights, marriage equality, health care, school vouchers, right to life, immigration, food stamps, climate change, scripture interpretation, gun control — or tattoos, March Madness, or the relation of Lake Junaluska to Waynesville — let’s try to respect, listen to and learn from one another. As Thomas Jefferson put it long ago, let’s “not [be] afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any ‘error’ so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

(Doug Wingeier is a retired seminary professor and minister. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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