The Advantages of Disagreement

In my previous post, I briefly discussed the concept of expression through various means, and the difficulties and rewards associated with it.  Within that discussion, I included a statement which is representative of my outlook on the goal of any conversation that engages with controversial topics; that I hoped to “generate much productive disagreement.”  I thought it would be worthwhile to dive into this idea a bit more in depth.

A Necessary Undertaking

Unfortunately, the words “productive” and “disagreement” are too often thought of as being incompatible.  It is commonly supposed that they are pitted against each other on opposite ends of the spectrum; that in order to have a productive outcome to a conversation, all participating parties must predominantly agree. While this sentiment is often driven by genuine intentions to bring about a healthy environment, it ultimately stifles necessary discourse and is counterproductive.  Because of the incredible difficulty of finding consistent common ground with others in such a chaotically shifting world, this misguided approach can lead to stagnation in the very areas that need addressing the most. If we don’t confront those challenging issues collectively – as well as in interpersonal settings – we will not achieve the progress that is so badly needed.

I would even take this line of reasoning a bit further. It could be argued that if allowed to play out, this tension of perspectives actually provides us with more opportunities for comprehensive solutions, rather than less. For in those conversations containing proponents of differing ideas, a platform is constructed which facilitates the sharing of greater amounts of information.  More detailed arguments are woven into the discussion.  The door is swung wide open, inviting deeper thought, greater intellectual rigor, and closer engagement with those that you are contending against.  On this note, perhaps the most important element that is allowed to flourish is the introduction of an external viewpoint.  Each respective participant is exposed to the unique contributions of a mind that is completely outside of its own, bringing in aspects of the problem that may have been previously overlooked. Finally, when allowed a context in which there can be pushback against one’s stances, greater opportunity is afforded to perceive weak points in the reasoning that helped arrive at them.  Ideally, this can lead to corrections, and the process of crafting stronger, more watertight arguments.

Conversely, in a setting where there is primarily agreement between all present, there may be a few comments or observations, and then a quick  unanimous conclusion is usually reached.  This allows for very little analysis of or interaction with the substance of the topic at a deeper level.  It often leads to either a short conversation, or the immediate end of it altogether.  Typically, this is the result of a lack of incentive for pursuing it to greater lengths . If there is already consensus, what’s the point of dwelling on it further?

At this point though, it is important to make this clarification: I am only proposing that disagreement can be useful if it is done with respect and consideration for all others involved.  Taking an opposite stance only for the sake of antagonizing hostility steers an otherwise beneficial discussion off course.  Sadly, this propensity for dialogue to become quickly derailed has contributed to many people’s aversion to controversial topics in social settings.

What is greatly needed then in our time is a return to the art of well rounded discourse, especially when it comes to navigating strongly differing perspectives within those tough discussions.

Roadblocks to Healthy Conversation

This call for a recommitment to more engaging dialogue is not a new one.  It has been reiterated in many contexts throughout our social spheres, and has also found its way into many speeches, articles and books.  Many of the observations I have made so far are simply an echo of the sentiments already present within those works.  In spite of this, the fact still remains that there is unavoidably a tenseness that manifests itself in conversations which veer towards controversy; this hesitancy shows up in larger group settings as well as smaller social gatherings.  Ironically, as these collective entreaties of “coming together” and “embracing our differences” have intensified, it seems that the climate has worsened and the lines of division have been drawn even more clearly. It is probably safe to say then that – to some degree – we have been going about it the wrong way.

Perhaps one of the most critical areas where we have missed the mark is our failure to view the relationship between the speaker and the listener in a rightly balanced manner.  It seems that most – if not all – of the onus is placed on those that contribute their opinion or arguments, rather than a shared responsibility alongside the person they are conversing with.  If someone desires to speak up, they are expected to delicately craft statements that will not offend in any way, and to profusely apologize if they happen to do so at any point.  Approaching dialogue in this manner is grossly lopsided, and places the reins squarely in the hands of any perceived victim of insensitivity.  This is incredibly problematic.  A conversation that can be deemed illegitimate simply at the whim of an offended party cannot bear the weight of any real issues, and therefore cannot produce any workable solutions to them.  This recent article that was published in The Atlantic, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, addresses this issue as it exists within the spheres of many college campuses.  Particularly, the article examines the nature of microaggressions and trigger warnings, two terms that have recently gained traction in campus lingo. The absurdity of some of the cases they cite serves as a sobering reminder of this vital point: an unhealthy obsession with a recipient’s protection can eventually lead to an incredibly stifling environment. Furthermore, they demonstrate the great irony behind this misdirected approach.  Overbearing regulatory behavior which attempts to shield any potential victims from ideas and topics they find offensive works against itself; it ultimately is damaging to those it seeks to protect. Keeping students in the bubble of their own comfort, free from ideas they deem unsavory, will produce a fragility that is untenable in such a harsh world.

There is another faulty mindset worth mentioning that exists as an additional hurdle here.  It seems that far too frequently, there is a conflation of ideas with the people that generate those ideas.  Many individuals wrongly interpret attempts to disprove their statements or arguments as attacks on them directly.  This is the case because they have inextricably tied themselves to their ideas; the identity they possess is derived from their ability to craft sound arguments.  When an outsider questions the integrity of their contributions, it is perceived as a personal affront. As Samuel James, writing for Mere Orthodoxy, describes it:

“Civil disagreement requires a moral imagination able to empathize with an opposing point of view and understand how it is possible for a person with good intentions to arrive at an opposite conclusion. The ability to differentiate between ideas and people is not a highly nuanced intellectual concept. It is a mark of basic adult thinking, but it does require some level of inherent human trust.”

The whole piece is well worth the read; it addresses many of the aspects we have already been discussing here, but with a broader scope.  He also makes an important observation that this difficulty is not unique to our time period. While that is true, I do believe it has become intensified somewhat in recent years. Granted, it has always been human nature to have a difficult time admitting one’s own wrong behavior or perspectives.  It seems though that this unwillingness has become especially rampant in our current age; people tend to bristle all too often at the suggestion that their opinions are incorrect.  Perhaps this is due in large part to the effects of various forms of social media on our social climate.  Being a medium that encourages the clamor of constantly voicing your opinions in order to stay relevant, it conditions its users to feel the necessity of wading into any conversation. Unavoidably then, this is usually done regardless of how informed they may be on the topic at hand.  The pressure to contribute opinions and share information reinforces this false notion: that a person’s social identity is married to the ideas they formulate and subsequently insert into the public forum.

Reimagining a Way Forward

Without the free, healthy and productive exchanging of ideas, it is hard to envision a society that is headed in a direction worth going.  To facilitate this necessary exchange requires embracing the process of robust disagreement.  If it is animated by a respect for others and a deep commitment to uncovering the best solutions, variance in perspectives can add dynamic layers to our discourse.  The negative stigma attached to the word “disagreement” needs to be disposed of; a shift in our perception of it can open the door to greater freedom of thought.  In order to do this, we must first shed our imbalanced and defensive postures which hinder us from objectively interacting with the issues at hand. This will allow us to probe any topic from multiple angles, and may ultimately generate practical solutions to those controversies which need addressing.


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