How Do You Handle Name Calling in a Winsome Way?

Alan explains three different types of name calling and what you can do when one of them is directed at you. 



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“I’m facing an onslaught of name calling for simply stating my Christian convictions. How do you handle it in a winsome way? Can you give personal examples that you have faced? What do we need to tell ourselves internally to quell the natural impulse to anger?”

I teach on a lot of controversial issues, and merely stating my convictions sometimes puts me in a situation where people want to call me names. Let me give you suggestions for how I handle it.

The first is to set expectations. If you are a Christian speaking in the name of Christ and advancing the Christian worldview, you have to expect and be prepared that you will endure persecution, name calling, and ridicule. In fact, the Bible offers dozens of passages that talk about how we as Christians will endure difficulty and persecution. In 1 Peter, Peter says, “Do not be surprised by the difficulty you’re experiencing although something strange were happening to you.” We see this all over Scripture, so we shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of behavior from the world. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world, so we should have an expectation that this is what we’re going be experiencing – persecution and name calling. 

The second thing I do is I see name calling as a form of steamrolling. If you’re familiar with Stand to Reason and Greg’s book on tactics, you’ll be familiar with the Steamroller tactic. It’s simply a way of dealing with people who come at you with a tremendous amount of energy and hostility. Often times, when someone is calling you names, it’s a similar kind of thing. They have a lot of energy, momentum, and they’re directing it at you. The way I deal with someone who is calling me names is I try to call out what they’re doing, and then I try to negotiate a truce. For example, I’ll say, “Wait a second, you seem to just be calling me names. This doesn’t seem very helpful to our discussion. Name calling is just name calling, and that’s not very productive. Can we just skip that part and talk about our respective views instead of calling me names?” By doing this, it’s hopefully going to embarrass them a little bit and bring a little bit of shame onto them. It’s not intended to be malicious, but you do want them to recognize that what they’re doing is wrong by calling you names, and you want them to agree not to do it in the future. If they continue to call you names, my suggestion would be to let them have the last word and move on. 

Often times, when you point out that they’re name calling, they’ll feel a sense of uneasiness and regret, and then they’ll stop calling you names. 

The third thing I do is use the Columbo tactic. Again, if you’re familiar with Greg’s work on tactics, you’ll be familiar with the notion of asking questions instead of statements, which is what the Columbo tactic is about. The first application of the Columbo tactic is intended to help you gain information. I use that tactic specifically when someone calls me a name. I ask, “What do you mean by that?” Or I ask them to define the name they just called me. It will turn out that that definition either 1) doesn’t apply to you 2) if it applies to you, it also applies to them, or 3) it doesn’t matter that it applies at all. 

Often times, I’ll be teaching on the topic of homosexuality. People will call me homophobic. I’ll ask them, “What do you mean by that? Define homophobic for me.” There are many different ways people define the term homophobic, but I’ll give you one example. They may say, “You’re afraid of homosexuals. You can’t stand to be around them, and you think they’re nasty. You don’t want anything to do with them.” Here’s an example where this clearly doesn’t apply to me. If this person were to get to know me, often times I’ll simply explain, I have friends and family that identify themselves as gay or lesbian. I’ve had many of these people over at my house. I love them. I host them at my place. If you knew my life or knew me personally, there’s no way you could get away with saying I’m homophobic in the sense of having an irrational fear of people who identify as gay or lesbian. There’s an example where the term may not apply to you at all. That becomes clear when you ask, “What do you mean by that?”

The second possible definition is one in which, if it does apply to you, perhaps it also applies to them as well. Often times people will call me judgmental, narrow-minded, or intolerant, so I’ll say, “What do you mean by that? Could you define narrow-minded for me?” Again, I’m using the Columbo tactic. They’ll say, “By narrow-minded I mean you think you’re right, and anyone who differs from you is wrong.” I guess I do believe that. I do think I’m right and if someone differs from me then they’re wrong. Notice with this definition, although it applies to me, it also applies to them. I’ll ask, “Don’t you think you’re right?” They’ll say, “Yeah.” I’ll say, “I differ from you, so by definition, I’m wrong. So, according to your definition of narrow-minded, you’d also be narrow-minded because I differ from you, and you think you’re right.” There’s an example where a name may apply to you, but it also applies to them. That’s the case, by the way, with being called judgmental or other kinds of words like that, when moral relativism is being expressed.

A third type of name calling sometimes doesn’t even matter that it applies to you. For example, one time I was teaching at a university, and I was asked to present the pro-life position to the university audience. It was me against the university audience. I had 20 minutes to make my case, and then I had to take any challenge from the audience. With those 20 minutes, I presented a scientific defense for the full humanity of the unborn from the moment of conception. Then, I took challenges. After about a half an hour of challenges, people didn’t think they were making a lot of progress in terms of refuting the scientific claims I made. Finally, somebody stood up at the microphone and said, “Well you’re just anti-woman.” Here’s an example where it doesn’t really matter whether that’s true or not, so here’s what I said, “Ok, let’s just say you’re right. Let’s say I hate women. How does that affect the scientific defense that I just gave an hour ago that the unborn is a human being from the moment of conception?” It doesn’t. If I’m anti-woman and I hate women, it doesn’t at all affect the scientific argument that I just presented because my character and who I am has no bearing on the merits of that scientific defense. It’s completely irrelevant. I could be anti-woman, homophobic, bigoted, or a Nazi. I could be Hitler himself, and it wouldn’t affect the scientific defense that I just gave because that scientific defense stands or falls on its own merits. That’s why, often times, when someone calls you a name, it just doesn’t even matter because they’re attacking character rather than the argument itself. 

That’s what I do when I’m called names. 1) I set my expectations so I’m not surprised by it. 2) I recognize name calling as steamrolling, call it out for what it is, and negotiate a truce. 3) I use the Columbo tactic to define the word they are using to call me names. Often times, it will either not apply to me, if it does apply to me it also applies to them, or it doesn’t even matter that it applies at all.

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Alan Shlemon