Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Hard Sentence

In education (and, I would guess, in the business world) we give and are given both "formative" and "summative" evaluations. The former is an evaluation that is given in order to help in development; the latter is a kind of judgement -- a conclusive look at work done and goals achieved. A summative evaluation says: this is you, as a professional (or as a student).

It seems to me that, in the social world, there is little but summative evaluation going on. I have been thinking about this a lot: At what point (if at any) does an action or a viewpoint define a person?

Just yesterday, as a result of my post on Monday, a friend on Facebook disagreed with what he saw my position to be. I still think he misread; as far as I know he still thinks I was off the mark. As it was related to the issue of racism and he is an African American, this could have been dicey. But, here's the thing: He knows me and I know him. We have known each other for years and we are both articulate and intellectually inquisitive. In discussion with this gentleman (and I underscore "gentleman") I never fear that a difference of opinion will be a deal-breaker for our friendship. We say what we think and we say it with civility. Sometimes, we actually change each other's minds. (His comments lead to one revision in my post from Monday.)

The best part about this scenario is that we are not in contact, very much, beyond Facebook. We used to work together in the mall when we were in school. I call this "the best part" not because I wouldn't like to see him more, but because it means we don't have the kind of deep history childhood friends might have; a history that would prevent us from ruining a lifetime of shared experience at the expense of our principles. Such a relation ship might override even the worst disagreements. With us, it is simple: we know well-enough what makes each of us tick. We understand each other's good intentions. While we might evaluate each other formatively ("I think you are very wrong here") we don't judge each other summatively ("Your viewpoint makes you a horrible person and I want nothing to do with you").

Lorenzo Lotto
Conversely, I have been completely ignored by someone (on Facebook) who disagreed with my position on an issue -- on one topic. This person now no longer communicates with me, despite having once been a very active reader of this blog and a constant communicator on Facebook.

I watched two high school friends tear each other apart in a political debate and their relationship ended, forthwith. Because they disagreed and also because they allowed their disagreement to get nasty, all bets were off. I know both of them and I think they are both very good-hearted guys. Should a disagreement have ended their chance to be friends?

Two things are at work, here, I suppose: 1) People's inability to argue without losing control of their emotions and 2) a prevalent assumption that a point of view gives us a summative picture of a person and that that summation is a reason to remain or not remain friends with that person.

I could see looking at someone summatively if they were an outspoken supporter of, say, wife beating. That is not the kind of person I want to remain friends with; the position itself shows a violent nature and a disregard for humanity. But to end a relationship based on opposite political views? Nah. Even a sensitive issue (as has been proven several times with my friend above) can be discussed civilly with no damage to a friendship, so long as mutual respect exists and is exhibited.

What is pervasive is hard to defeat. I have seen a lot of use over the past few years of the phrase "horrible person" as applied to a person who said something disagreeable. That's a pretty hard sentence (in both senses of the word).

"Quick to judge -- Quick to anger -- Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand."
Neil Peart, "Witch Hunt."


  1. This quote from Petrarch, which I just read over at Books Inq, may be pertinent (at least the anger bit with regard to your Facebook friend and the two boys who can't speak to each other any more): Five enemies of peace inhabit with us - avarice, ambition, envy, anger, and pride; if these were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.