I recently saw this article, online and thought it was worth sharing: How To Disagree: A Beginner’s Guide To Having Better Arguments, broadcast by Timandra Harkness (It is being repeated on BBC Radio 4 at 9.30am every Wednesday until 6 March. You can listen online or via BBC Sounds).
“I wouldn’t blame you for disagreeing with me about that, especially right now, when politics is dominated by apparently intractable arguments that spill over into every aspect of our lives. But give me a minute to try and convince you.
Without disagreement, nothing would ever change. Dissent from the status quo is a vital force in society, forcing us to question whether we are, in fact, doing the right thing. Because the dissenters may also be wrong, we need healthy arguments to test ideas on both sides. But today, alas, we mostly have unhealthy arguments.
We regard contrary opinions as evidence of idiocy, evil intentions, or – at best – lack of knowledge. We are quicker to shout insults than to listen to opinions. We hope that bombarding the other side with facts, figures and graphs will force them to see how wrong they are.
In extreme cases, we demand that our opponents be silenced, to prevent more gullible ears from being exposed to their outrageous views.
Changing other people’s minds is hard. They are as stubborn as you are and, to their own eyes, their reasoning is as good as yours. So why argue with them? Much easier to bolster our own sense of moral and cognitive superiority by deriding them, and then retire to fraternise in our own camp, entrenching everyone’s position.
But this is no way to mend a fractured society.
We disagree in diverse ways. Sometimes we share a goal, but have different ideas about how to reach it. Other times we are starting with different beliefs about how the world is (factually), or how it ought to be (morally).
One of the biggest challenges to my defence of reasonable disagreement comes from debates founded in opposing interests. How can we reach an outcome that everyone accepts, when not everybody can get what they want? You can draw your own parallels with current negotiations happening in UK and international politics.
Some general tips for fruitful disagreement also apply here. I asked Sara Gorton of Unison, who recently negotiated a new pay deal for over a million NHS staff, how I might tackle something smaller. Say, a dispute with my neighbour over my wanting a bigger shed.
“Look out of your neighbour’s window,” was her advice. It applies literally for shed disputes, but metaphorically in all negotiations. Try to see things from the other side’s point of view.
This is easier in a dispute where you can imagine yourself being on the other side. Yes, this time it’s you wanting to build that shed, but perhaps next time you’ll be the neighbour who fears losing the sunshine from your garden. You’ll understand their position better, and have some empathy for their feelings.
Ultimately, you may have to look beyond winning this one, and see getting a good or bad deal – or no deal at all – as part of a longer relationship. Sometimes we have to find consensus not on immediate outcomes, but on the shared frameworks we have built for disagreement.
Informally, we need to remember that our neighbours, family members, or fellow citizens will still be there next week, possibly for years. Human relationships need room for tolerance as well as robust argument, so we can live together.
Formally, in the public sphere, we have evolved institutions and principles to keep our disagreements civil and fair. We value our political party gaining power, of course, but we also value democracy as a good in itself, because it helps us tackle political disagreements without violence or a breakdown of civil society.
The shared practices of democracy, diplomacy, and public discussion may be irksome when they frustrate getting the outcome we want. But without some common ground on which to disagree, we will find it hard to change anybody’s mind, to improve our own thinking, or even to live together in tolerant dissent.
Disagreement is more than great. It is vital – and it’s too important to keep doing badly.”
Check out the Radio 4 episodes on the subject, including Episode 2 which introduces mediation and a hypothetical issue over a large shed: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0bf59rx