It’s lovely when you agree with people, isn’t it? Friendships blossom over a mutual love for Alan Partridge, 1960s French pop songs and glitter. There’s no denying that agreeing is a surefire way to make someone like you without having to do or say anything nice to them to deserve it. For example, if I ever meet someone who agrees with me that Ian Hislop looks like the pansy from Alice in Wonderland when he smiles, I might propose to them on the spot.
Disagreeing uses up more mental energy, and we like our mental energy stored right where it already is, thank you very much. Nobel Prize-winning stud Daniel Kahneman says that people will do anything to conserve energy, both physically and mentally. That explains why despite being only too aware of the unhealthiness of eating a lovely shiny greasy takeaway, it will always be preferable to cutting up broccoli and boiling broccoli and having to actually eat the broccoli. It also explains why I often shy away from disagreeing for an easier life.
Conscientious disagreement and criticism is a vital part of the process of learning, so it has to feature somewhere. Of course, all too often a minor comment on the week’s news has the potential to erupt into full scale friendship-destroying feud within seconds, so disagreement certainly needs to be done cautiously. In my mind, there’s a sliding scale of disagreements, with cold and clinical academic debate at one end, and the explosive cocktail of pubs, politics and religion at the other. I reckon we have to nudge it over towards the cold and clinical to make real progress in terms of challenging our own and other’s opinions, and here’s what I think we need to focus on.
The first danger in disagreements to avoid is using the breath from our contributions to polish our titanium-plated certainty that we are right and everyone else is wrong. In a way, your opinion will always be correct: only you have lived your particular life, and so you’re right to have your opinion because it is true to your experience. But the same will be true of others: they will have had different experiences and therefore different opinions. Opinions are formed from nurture, so everyone’s ideas will be nuanced and unique, like the precious ickle snowflakes that we all are.
I love that in academia, certainty is almost punishable by death. You’re simply not allowed to say “this evidence categorically proves the entire theory is totally correct, forever and ever amen”. Academic thought is never complete as it’s always changing in the face of new evidence and responding to criticism. I reckon this modesty and openness to improvement is a heavy duty power tool that we can borrow for political discussions as well.
A symptom of certainty is complacency. The Ancient Greeks called this brand of pride hubris, meaning an excess of pride that will eventually lead to your downfall. Without ensuring that I have respect for other people’s perspectives, I might end up dismissing someone else’s knowledge and insights, and then they might dismiss mine. What could have been a productive discussion from two different perspectives will disintegrate into two fully grown people flicking the Vs right in each other’s faces until someone breaks them up.
Modesty and respect go together like Pepsi and Shirley. The kind of respect Aretha Franklin wants us to ‘sock’ to her is showing that we have genuine regard for her feelings, wishes or rights, which is admittedly less catchy. Respect is knowing that while it’s impossible to fully understand another person’s perspective, I trust that they’ve thought about it long and hard and this opinion best fits in with their life experiences. And if I seriously don’t respect someone, then there’s no need to talk to them. Step away from the anonymous Twitter account and leave Miley Cyrus to lick her sledgehammers in peace.
One big aspect of political discussion should be dialogue, and we’re more dialogue-deficient than I initially thought. Karen Armstrong OBE is clearly important because of the letters after her name, and she has some top notch wisdom on dialogue, imported fresh from Ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato. Armstrong says that in a true dialogue, at every point you must listen to what the person is telling you and allow it to change your own opinions before responding. There is no point entering into a discussion if you’re not open to change. If you’re not game for change, then that’s tantamount to bringing a can of Special Brew to an AA meeting. Allowing yourself to be changed doesn’t necessarily mean swallowing their opinion whole and bowing down to their feet chanting “I am not worthy” (although if anyone wants to do that for me, I wouldn’t discourage it); it means simply that we allow the encounter to alter our position in some way, at least by acknowledging it and taking it into account.
Often a Newsnight ‘debate’ will compose of two people pressing play on their opposing opinions alternately until the end of the segment, but this isn’t the calm attentive dialogue Armstrong wanted. The aggression is entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but aggression belongs at the beginning of a rugby match or at the end of a football match. The fangs need to be retracted for real dialogue to happen, because who even knows how painful it would be to talk with fangs extended.
Big shot philosopher Hegel said that you shouldn’t dismiss those you disagree with but learn from them, and I couldn’t agree more. If we incorporated modesty, respect and dialogue into how we talk about politics, then I reckon we’d get a hell of a lot more done. But then again, I could be wrong.
Daniel Kahneman (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Alain de Botton (2015). How to disagree (without starting World War Three). New Statesman, 29 May.