When Paul was teaching the Greeks on Mars Hill, many left the theatre when he taught them doctrines that they disagreed with. Do you remember who stayed behind to hear the rest of Paul’s sermon? Those who felt the spirit in Paul’s teachings stayed, and philosophers who were curious about Paul’s “new” ideas stayed.
In any mormon scholarly debate, we should be willing to listen to credible diverse viewpoints. We should be less like the people who left the stadium in a huff when Paul said something they disagreed with, and more like the philosophers who were willing to hear Paul because he had something new to offer.
Intellectual debate is the essential to scientific-theological discovery. Scholarship is a social activity. Progress is made when credible viewpoints are freely exchanged in the marketplace of ideas. Viewpoints that are founded on facts, reason, and a sound interpretation of scripture should be welcomed in the marketplace of ideas, even if we disagree with them.
Nothing kills a vigorous debate faster than hostile language. Name calling and insults like “You do not know what you are talking about” have one thing in common: they are attacks on personal character. Attempting to discredit people's viewpoints by assailing their character or personal beliefs is called an ad hominem attack. Ad hominem attacks usually result when people respond in haste or when they feel frustration over not being able to persuade people to think differently. An ad hominem attack is not a legitimate argument.
In scholarly debates it is not appropriate to call people jerks, idiots, or intellectual midgets etc. just because they hold different viewpoints. Even if we believe someone is a jerk, we should refrain from using such language for the simple fact that it stifles debate.
I am not perfect when it comes to communicating in a scholarly manner. On a few occasions I have written something in haste and later changed my text when I realized the language was too harsh. (Posting a harsh comment on someone else’s blog and not being able to take it back is a real bummer – it’s up there for the whole world to read over and over again.)
Here’s a thought that helps me stay cool in lively exchanges. It is that a scholarly debate is more about exchanging ideas than it is about changing ideas.