Productive controversy

There’s no doubt about it: Mennonite bloggers are getting braver. Ooh, and this is a good thing, for voices to be found and viewpoints to be expressed.

It does have its issues.

I read three articles in the past couple of weeks, by three of them—

(Don’t you love the lumping all-conclusiveness of “them”? As though they are one of a kind?)

Correction: I read three articles by three different bloggers in the past couple of weeks. Though their topics differed widely (from Anabaptist ministry to multi-level marketing), each presented a fairly pointed critique of a problematic situation. Each posted an appeal to a wide group of people. Each was brave, and well-worded, and raised important though controversial issues. Each was followed by quite a hubbub of agreement or disagreement.

Only one article was difficult for me to read. Though I agreed with many of its points, I found myself on the defensive throughout the article. Surprisingly or not, this one sparked the sharpest feedback, with numerous people objecting to the “attitude” of the writer while others found her “funny” and “spot-on.”


I am thinking about this now.

On social media, it’s so easy to slant the rules. For example, “My blog is my own space for airing whatever I wish to address.”


We never give that right to physical spaces, as if “in her house” or “in his pulpit” or “on that street corner” a person may say anything, at any length, to anyone, without accountability…? I don’t think so.

However, I seldom question the “right” to speak, but the courtesy of the speaker.

What do you think? What makes it possible for you to hear a viewpoint you disagree with without becoming defensive in response? Does it have anything to do with the speaker? Does it have anything to do with your own heart?

Of course the same questions may be asked in any social group, not only online or in the media. Families, churches, and businesses all have to find ways of communicating differing opinions productively. How do we do this? What adjectives describe the kind of pushback people can actually hear and receive?

Personally, there are two things that (rightfully or no) put me on guard against the proponent of a viewpoint, especially online.

First is facelessness. If you are going to claim the right to speak, and particularly to criticize, it’s only fair that we can see you—your real face, your true name, something of your actual self. I may be too incautious here personally, having never been burned by masked gunmen or irate readers showing up at my physical-address-which-I-was-too-free-with-online. But I’m frustrated by the number of times I show up at someone’s site only to find no identifying information whatsoever. No real name, no photo, no history, nothing by which the writer could be caught hold of and taken to account.

Now—I’m Mennonite, right? Which means I don’t properly know you until we’ve discussed your grandfather, your older sister who went to Bible school with my big brother, and the farmhouse you lived in as a child.

But isn’t there a happy medium between the two? Must we have full disclosure or… lurking? We are becoming a generation of eels, uncatchable, untraceable, slipping in and out of deliberately blurred backgrounds. I think I understand our wish to escape our histories, to be known only as “ourselves,” but it’s simply not possible. (Nor is it the way to influence people and situations.) We can’t reinvent ourselves to suit. We have real lives, guys—with real faces, real ancestors, real problems.* Can we have them online too?

*(Sometimes the faces, the ancestors, and the problems are all the same thing. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

The second turnoff for me is ire*, though I have trouble with this one myself—biting my tongue until I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE WITH THESE IDIOTS AND NOW I’M GOING TO SPEAK UP. This doesn’t work, does it? It only makes your listeners raise their shields. And then their swords.

*(The definition is worth clicking on!)

If the explosion approach isn’t successful in real life, with collegues or church families or close friends, it’s not going to work in the cyberworld either. Oh yes, I have the right to speak! but depending on the tone I choose I may find no one to listen. (And then it’s fun to label them “intolerant” of “a valid viewpoint no one is willing to consider!”—but could it possibly be my method?)

It’s so easy to demand a respect for myself and my position that I am unwilling to extend to others and their ways. If I am so passionate as to pour ire on those who disagree with me (cynicism, belittling, blame throwing), I need to take a deep breath and a large chill pill before putting the world through what I have to say.

(Shari Zook, take note.)

I like to hear different opinions. I like when they are well said, when they are respectful, when they are meaty. I don’t even quite believe all our words have to be “kind.” The last time I checked, Jesus’ flaming epithets of “whited sepulchres” and “dead men’s bones” probably had the emotional effect of a punch—though I am not so wise and good as He is, by a long mile. Truth in love is at times sharp-shooting and intense, but there’s a long stretch between cowardly and brutal. Can we permit others the space to disagree with us without making them feel like utter nincompoops?

What makes controversy meaningful? productive? good? What pushes you to engage with a speaker or writer you disagree with?


Your turn! Here are the questions I asked above.

What do you think? What makes it possible for you to hear a viewpoint you disagree with without becoming defensive in response? Does it have anything to do with the speaker? Does it have anything to do with your own heart?

Families, churches, and businesses all have to find ways of communicating differing opinions productively. How do we do this? What adjectives describe the kind of pushback people can actually hear and receive?

What makes controversy meaningful? productive? good? What pushes you to engage with a speaker or writer you disagree with?

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9 years ago

Hi Shari, being a good mennonite, I will tell you how I know who you are. I was one of your father’s students at Maranatha years ago and was once a Skrivseth, now a Hartman. I loved this post, and hope you don’t mind that I have yours listed as one of my favorite blogs. You write very plainly and clearly, of which I much admire and am sometimes envious. I believe the most productive conversation/controversy is the one that leads us to the Word of God and to the mind of Christ. I have found that even when I don’t agree with a writer, if they were able to make me take an honest look at my heart and consider the work of the Holy Spirit because of it, then it was productive. Which is what this post just did. 🙂 Thank you, keep inspiring…

9 years ago
Reply to  Shilah

I remember you! 🙂 Thanks for your words.

Joanna Yoder
9 years ago

I clicked on the link for the definition of “ire”, and was caught not so much by the definition as by the near-antonyms and antonyms: calmness, forbearance, patience, delight, pleasure. Fragments of Scripture and snatches of wedding vows flashed through my mind. God takes great delight in us…we (in Mennonite wedding ceremonies) vow to exercise forbearance & patience towards our spouses…God works in us to do His good pleasure… All of these are proven effective ways to improve relationships. I am too quick, in real life and in writing, to express ire rather than the opposite. God forgive.

I’m going to answer one of your questions: “What makes it possible for you to hear a viewpoint you disagree with without becoming defensive in response?”

It is when I know the story of the speaker/writer, either because I already know them IRL, or else because I have read their books/blog/etc. for a number of years and thus understand better from where they are coming. I can much better extend grace & forbearance to a rather harsh blog, if I know the story of its writer. Better yet if I share key life experiences with the writer.

I know I read at least one of the blogs to which you’re referring, and the backlash to it surprised me completely. I didn’t read just that article; I read back through her blog & caught other glimpses of her life. And although some parts of the most recent post made me wince, I assumed that she was lacing it all with humor. That is one of the dangers of online writing, I suppose; we cannot see the twinkle in the eye of the writer, or the smirk on her face. But then, the danger of online response is that we can swiftly type out a scathing or judgmental comment without taking the time to consider how our own words will sound at face value.

Okay, stopping now before I’ve written a blog post myself.
Thanks for moving me to ponder.

9 years ago
Reply to  Joanna Yoder

Great thoughts, Joanna! So maybe in the absence of real-life knowledge of a person or writer, it helps to remember there’s always more to the story… to the issue… and to the person… than meets the eye!

9 years ago

If the bearer of the viewpoint I don’t agree with is humble, very careful to be honest, and don’t expect to be believed on their own merits, then, I enjoy exploring a different opinion. I think a willingness to learn and lack of know-it-all arrogance on the listener’s part is critical…..

9 years ago

Passion can be splendidly in order! Let it pour forth! But let it drench the issue, and not the issuer of the issue. (Goodness, I hope that makes sense.)

Let it address actions and not assign black motives to those actions.

And this, I think, cannot be escaped: if you are going to deliver a diatribe to an audience of strangers without the under-girding context of established relationship, you will discover the core truth in these words of Jesus: “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”.

If you are not cool with that degree of heat, you would do well to reconsider your writing “techniques”.

Donna Mullet
9 years ago
Reply to  Rhonda Strite

I really like the first paragraph about passion being in order.. and the addressing actions not assigning motives! makes a lot of sense! I wrote this down to remind myself..

9 years ago

And all I want to know is who blogged about multi level marketing. My life is directly affected by that right now and I am struggling with it. Ok a lot.
Great article though! I have more questions than answers myself.

9 years ago

I certainly don’t have all the answers to this topic. But it is dear to my heart. As a child growing up I was often told to be quiet if my opinion differed from the adult present. One time I was told that I don’t have a scientific mind so I can’t understand and give opinions on the subject at hand!
It seems to me that often a person who is unwilling to hear other’s opinions is both immature and insecure.
Even though they may come across as the one who is strong because they know what they think. If you cannot listen to someone else you have not grown up yet!!! 🙂
On the other hand, we have been called to liberty, but we are not ever to use that liberty to for our own agendas!!!!
I think you are right, I like what you had to say. Let’s not abuse social media!! It does not leave a good testimony!!

9 years ago

Of course, for proper context you Must provide links to those three articles. 😉

9 years ago
Reply to  Alvin

I considered it. But then (God forbid) we would have to argue here about their varying viewpoints…

and if the writers are anything like me, they are sticking to their guns but praying no one ever links to those particular words again. 🙂 Happy sleuthing.

9 years ago

Hi, I’m Shilah’s niece. I liked your thoughts here a lot. I had just been pondering why “that” post bothered me. I keep hearing my mother’s words ringing in my ears. “Always be kind.” Yes, not everything Jesus said felt or appeared very kind. Yet, I think we need to choose those times incredibly carefully. Thanks for a well written post.

9 years ago

Lots to think on here. I’m not sure I have any answers, I should let your questions perambulate for a few days but my first thought was Humility.

I find that I can listen to someone I disagree with if they have a spirit of humility. I don’t believe that any of us have the final word on any subject. When I can sense that the person has a teachable spirit and is seeking God and His Word, than even when I disagree I have to continue to respect them.

But I have so much to learn in humility myself. It will probably be a lifetime job.

9 years ago

It is easiest for me to hear the view point of another when they do not take themselves too seriously. Still, when “passion pours forth” (words from above comments), often I read too much intensity into the words of the other… so me thinks this business of not taking ourselves to seriously is between the speaker and listener – not just the fault of the one.

9 years ago

The easiest pushback for me to hear is from someone I know has my best interests in mind. Otherwise it’s easy to get defensive–“But you don’t understand my situation!” That doesn’t mean, however, that I shouldn’t listen to criticism that FEELS mean. It’s just harder to do. It’s easier to submit to others when I feel heard and understood.

What makes me engage with an author? I am engaging in this discussion because it feels relevant and helpful and calm. I didn’t engage in any of the discussions on the blogs you mentioned because when feelings are running high, it seems no one pauses to understand and everyone just blithely rants away. Much to my entertainment I might add 🙂

9 years ago

Virtually all communication, whether written, verbal, or non-verbal, is fraught with the danger of causing misunderstanding. A writer must spend hours rereading and rewriting her words to avoid this danger as much as possible, and a reader must extend grace when a writer’s passion has overtaken her wisdom. And even then, misunderstandings creep in. And as Howard Hendricks indicates, even thoughts communicated as clearly as possible still tend to diminish in the journey from speaker/writer to listener/reader. I think we’ll never communicate perfectly until we’re in heaven.

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