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October 2, 2012
African Voice
A Winsome Argument
by Imo Eshiet

Lately I have been teaching argument-based research. Before now I hardly realized almost everything in life has an argumentative edge, but lately I have learned to be less assuming and dismissive.

When I see a traffic or warning sign I now become more alert and critical to the argument it holds up. Commuting to work, I bring a greater sense of judgment to my driving as I constantly watch out for the hidden assumptions of fellow road users. Generally, I try to be more evaluating and increasingly mindful of opposing perspectives. This results in my making fewer snap judgments.

My new job even offers me a refresher course at being a better father and husband because it has made me more sensitive and open-minded. I attentively listen to claims of family members and especially love it when such claims are substantiated. Making concessions to others — especially if the evidence supporting their argument is convincing — and changing my opinion now comes easily, so am no longer averse to critically reexamining even long held assumptions and modifying them if I find they are unsustainable.

Sometimes the claims to an argument are implied. Every school day I help get my first grade daughter ready for school. Her school bus leaves by 6: 45 a.m. That means I have to wake her, get her through the bathroom, dress her up and see her to the bus. As we were going through these motions one recent morning, the phone rang.

The call that early was inconvenient and my first impression was to let the caller leave a voicemail while I got my daughter off to school. But when the phone screamed “Out of Area” twice, I changed my mind. As I rightly intuited, it was a call from Nigeria.

Although it was early morning here, it was already midday over there. My caller, a close friend, knew I had no business lying in bed at 6 a.m. But what he did not know was that I was at the service of one who staked complete claim on me at that time and therefore resented intruders.

From her body language when I asked her to continue alone in the bathtub, I sensed what to expect after the call. Calls from home usually mean some family member is sick and dying or dead and that I should wire some money. As I steeled myself for the bad news, I picked up the phone and with trepidation, signaled I was ready for the heartbreak.

I have been away from home for the past five years, and those who depended on me for sustenance have been dying off. Unable to come to terms with my long absence or why I left hurriedly without a word or providing for them, they felt abandoned. They have no idea why I left them and my life work behind. They, who taught me that when the chief limps all his subjects also limp, now have no clue that the heartache is mutual.

They do not know the deadly sting of exile. But how would they not know? Have they not been exiled their entire lives (though their exile has been internal economic displacement)? From what filters through, they think I took my family and “escaped to the Whiteman’s land and turned my back on them.”

Nothing cuts to the quick faster than this charge of selfishness. Because of the pain of separation, my loved ones no longer concede to the folk wisdom that, “The warmth of a rock is known only by the lizard which lies upon it.” Although they seem convinced that I deliberately left them in the lurch, I know better.

Fortunately my caller did not have news of another death or a dire situation that needed my support. Since May, I had enlisted him in the chore of getting a local university to send my academic transcripts to an evaluating firm in the U. S. It is easier to ride a bicycle to Mars than to get universities back home to release my transcripts and those of my children.

After several months of accustomed foot dragging, the graduate school told my friend it had located my file — which contained only grades and course numbers without the corresponding course titles. If I remembered the course titles, he would read out the course numbers for me so that the school could match them with the records they had. I was as bewildered as I was bemused at such witchery.

Having already missed a postdoctoral program due to the inability to obtain my transcripts on time, I suppressed my frustrations and forced my memory to recall courses I took more than a decade back. Eventually getting back to my daughter, I confronted the kind of calm that is usually the harbinger of a storm. She wanted to know who called and why I couldn’t tell him to call back.

While addressing her concern she exploded: “Who’s more important, the caller or your girl?” Though I managed to cajole and send her off to school, I felt sorry for her teacher that day because when she left she was as volatile as a ticking bomb. She had made a claim and I knew she would support it later.

Nothing sways me more than arguments that are unified and strengthened by evidence and facts. A winning argument is one that persuades and convinces with sound, critical reasoning. This was the kind of presentation the LDS missionaries used to power home their points when they contacted me.

Unlike the shouting contests other sects tried to sweep me off to their faith, the missionaries faced me with an appeal I could not resist. They presented a just and embracing plan of happiness spanning pre-mortal existence and the eternities.

It addressed fears that had nagged me persistently. For long the fate of my ancestors who never heard of the gospel agitated me. The idea was that they were idol worshippers with no hope for redemption outside an assured place in the mist of darkness. From what I knew about the nature of God, however, such argument lacked depth and credibility.

My ancestors knew and worshipped gods. Their religion was based on the light they had. Many were good men and women who desired the best for humanity and lived devoutly. How then could a just Heavenly Father consign them to damnation without giving them a chance to choose or reject His gospel? Shutting the door of salvation against those who needed it most was contrary to divine logic.

The missionaries who proselyted me put paid to centuries of fallacies and apostate assumptions. Their argument made the scales fall off my eyes and quickened my perception of how sublime the Atonement is. If all are the children of God and the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all believers, then there was a discrepancy and deficit in logic in denying hope to those who never had a chance to hear the gospel and therefore needed the saving grace of the good news.

More than that, they once more riveted my mind on my ancestors. For long we had been fastened on doctrines that were based on shallow premises. But with the light of the restored gospel, we happily shifted from exclusion to gratitude for encompassing love.

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