The dying art of disagreement

Humans disagree about things. Pick any topic and you’ll find people close at hand who have differing views about it. Personal experiences, priorities and a thousand other variables shape each individual’s opinions. Disagreement makes each of us reconsider what we think and why. It encourages examination of the question in detail, reaffirming our position if it’s right and modifying or changing it if a fair consideration shows that it’s lacking. That is civil dialogue. But today, many have lost the ability to agreeably disagree. A challenge to the art of disagreement is the attempted hijacking of the marketplace of ideas of people who insist not only that they are right but that everyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot.

No one is listening to understand anymore-it is either to pick the flaws in the speakers’ words or give unnecessary applauds that the whole point of the speech is forgotten. Applause, in the ancient world, was acclamation. But it was communication. It was, in its way, power. It was a way for frail little humans to recreate, through hands made ‘thunderous’, the rumbles and smashes of nature. But is this so anymore?
For its wonders and benefits, the internet has made it easier than ever for the loudest, rudest, most self-absorbed people to intimidate others and stifle the free exchange of ideas. The beauty of this art is fading away. We are rapidly coming to the point of losing the great heritage that was not worth losing-thoughtful rational use of language.
Looking at how a disagreement between two people is handled in today’s society; how we’ve reached a point where in many cases two people of opposing beliefs are no longer having an actual conversation. At best one party will shout the other down whilst attributing political –isms or –phobias, at worst they’ll resort to violence.

To disagree well, you must first UNDERSTAND well. You need to read deeply, listen carefully and watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathetically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say. Skills Leadership communication 101 suggests that a productive conversation has the ability to compare perspectives and make a decision. But what happens if a conversation or a case becomes emotional, or worse, an all-out argument? The key is to have the ability to separate yourself and look at the situation from a holistic point of view.

How has this conversation derailed? What is the participant in the scenario of a conversation trying to achieve? Part of leading effectively is to have the ability to identify strengths in others that you lack, and navigate social nuances.

If skepticism lark has taught us anything, it’s that disagreeing is a beautiful thing. Disagreeing with someone is a hard thing to do, in any context. Yet as humans, and as skeptics, it’s one of our keenest tools. It’s only by being able to step into disagreement that we can understand our topic, our audience, and hopefully steer hearts and minds away from those willing to mislead.
So the question is, how do we go about promising disagreement as a positive thing that we all need in our lives? How do we turn the tables on the thousands of years of evolution that make us shut down arguments as soon as they begin? The answer has to initially come from example.

I believe the skeptical movement is extremely well placed to start this tidal change in thought, but we all have to practice the heck out of it every single day if we’re ever going to get anywhere. We have to start being known synonymously as people who are really, really good at disagreeing respectfully, and that has to start from within.

We need to recognize that we might agree with someone on one thing, but not the other. We can’t see a person as synonymous with one of their opinions, and put people in good or bad boxes based on that. We shouldn’t be labelling people as anti-this, or anti-that, and then refusing to engage further. We should be experts at digging deeper than that, looking behind the headlines to search for shared humanity underneath. We need to lead the way in disagreeing without bullying, and we should never, never let up on that. We put ourselves in a position that could so easily be mashed up together with bullying by the general population when we dare to disagree, and we need to be relentlessly exemplary in our behavior to prove that we aren’t. We need to be the type of people who, even if faced, would keep their cool and be polite.
But then again, feel free to disagree.


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