The ability to depersonalize is key to social interaction. It is normal for people to disagree, after all, G-d gave us each unique brains and mindsets. It is impossible for us all to see the world the same way. Disagreements are inevitable. But in and of themselves, disagreements don’t jeopardize friendships. Personalizing disagreements jeopardizes friendships.
Far too often, people make objective differences of opinion personal. If you disagree with me, you disrespect me, and I don’t want to socialize with someone who disrespects me. It doesn’t need to be this way. Disagreements can be objective. Good friends can disagree on many of life’s issues, even life’s central issues, and remain good friends. In fact, they might even enjoy their interlocutory exchange.
Someone once told me that he doesn’t invite people to his home with whom he has profound disagreements. I was saddened by that. People are not comprised only of the opinions we don’t like. There is much more to a human being than his or her opinions. If we would let go of the disagreement and get to know the person, we might discover a wonderful friendship. Yet, because we rejected the person out of hand, we have possibly lost out on a wonderful friendship.
Human beings are created in G-d’s image. When we see a human walking down the street, we are not looking at a liberal or a conservative, a vegetarian or a meat-eater, we are looking at a copy of G-d’s image. If we come to respect each other for our depth and breadth of humanity, it will be much easier to see past our disagreements.
But it all begins with respect. If we learn to communicate our disagreements respectfully, it becomes easier for others to view them objectively. If we express our opinions with derision for those who disagree, they will naturally assume that we demean them too. We can express our opinions forcefully without personalizing them. We can disagree with an opinion without disagreeing with the person who holds them. In other words, we can disagree without being disagreeable.
I learned this from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, whose twenty-sixth yahrzeit falls on Thursday, June 25. The Rebbe would deliver lectures for many hours and was fearless about expressing his view on world matters that pertained to the Jewish people. He would articulate his reasons in detail and delineate the faults of the other views. His lectures were an intellectual tour de force, yet he never personalized his opinions. He often said that he was addressing the concept, not the person.
He often reached out privately to the person whose opinion he had dismantled in his public lecture. He would say that if we can’t agree on one or two issues, we can still work together on many other issues. He never felt that someone was unworthy of his time because of an opinion he could not abide.
It would be wonderful if we would all take a page from the Rebbe’s book. When we hear someone saying something that we don’t like, we can point it out rather than call them out and shame them. If we disagree with someone on an important matter, we can present our opinion carefully and respectfully rather than hotly and angrily. If someone disagrees with us, we can listen objectively and dispassionately, rather than grow hot under the collar.
Let’s cool down and take a breather. Our opinions are not so important that no one is permitted to disagree with them. If they don’t want to wear a mask in public and you do, discuss it, don’t criticize. If they are sending their children to camp, and you don’t, converse, don’t criticize. If they dare to express a political view that you think is heresy, don’t shoot them with verbal arrows. It’s just an opinion.
Moses was a perfect example of this. Korach led a public rebellion against Moses. He incited two-hundred-and-fifty scholars and a large portion of the populace against Moses. He had many disagreements with Moses, but the main one was that Moses and Aaron reserved the leadership roles of the Jewish people for themselves. Moses was the leader and prophet, and Aaron was the high priest.
Korach argued that Moses and Aaron wanted to dominate and lord it over the nation. He took an objective fact, imputed a personal motive, and transformed it into a verbal missile aimed directly at Moses. Korach did not depersonalize his rhetoric. Korach went at it as vehemently as he could. But Moses did everything he could do depersonalize and defuse the tension.
First Moses visited Korach and discussed it calmly and objectively. He explained that he understood Korach’s desire to be a high priest. Moses admitted that he too wanted the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies to offer incense. It is a noble and respectable desire.
When this didn’t defuse the tension, Moses begged Korach to listen. He explained that these roles were not assigned by Moses, but by G-d. You, Korach, said Moses, are criticizing me, but your argument is not with me, it is with G-d.
This was Moses trying to depersonalize the argument. Korach was running around telling people that Moses and Aaron were lording it over the nation, but Moses didn’t rise to the bait. He chose to focus on the subject, not the person. I understand your desire, I share it too, but this is not about me. This is about G-d. G-d made these choices so let’s sit down and discuss it rationally.
However, Korach and his men were too invested to back down. They replied brazenly that this was yet another tactic by Moses to attempt to lord it over the nation and that they would not back down. Moses was chagrined. When G-d told him that Korach and his men would die in a sudden earthquake, Moses tried once more. He went out to the tents of Korach’s men and begged them to desist. Once again, they refused, and the inevitable occurred. The ground opened and the men were swallowed alive.
It is a terrible ending to a terrible story, but we can all take a lesson from Moses’ book. Korach insisted on personalizing the argument, but Moses did not take the bait. He did his best to depersonalize it.
The Talmudic sages would often hold fierce debates on various points of law. The Talmud describes the debates as violent clashes of sword against shield. But no matter how fierce their debates, they always ended as friends. Their objective was never to be right. It was to discuss the matter and arrive at the truth.
We can and should do the same. When someone argues with us vehemently and vociferously, we should seek to diffuse and depersonalize. Whatever the subject, politics or sports, racism or human rights, religion or finances, if we keep the discussion to ideas and counter ideas, if we successfully depersonalize the argument, if we avoid demonizing others, it can be a stimulating conversation from which we might both learn. If we don’t, we can easily lose a friendship.
It should never be about you and me, it should always be about the subject. If we both calm down, we might actually enjoy the exchange of ideas. If we can successfully depersonalize and diffuse, we might not only win an argument, but more importantly, a friend.