On the importance of disagreement

August 27, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

The beginning of thought is in disagreement – not only with others but also with ourselves. –Eric Hoffer

Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress. –Mohandas Gandhi

Greetings all!  I would like to introduce myself.  My name is Brynn, and I’ll be joining the fantastic stable of authors at Dangerous Intersection.   I’m flattered that Erich asked me to be a part of what is being built here.  Lots of very talented people are contributing their thoughts to the ongoing discussion generated on various topics, and I’m honored to be a part of that.

I’ve been a regular reader of DI for about a year, and I’ve been impressed with the quality posts as well as the engaging discussion that often occurs in the comments following the post.  One thing that is never shied away from is disagreement.  Nor should disagreement be avoided.  There is no party line here, there is no heresy. What is abundant is the type of quality discussion and debate that is the hallmark of a vigorous, open community.

Too often in contemporary American society, honest debate is stifled.  Politicians have learned to speak in sound bites. Media commentators have learned to present insipid and truncated stories to a largely passive and apathetic audience.  The constraints of time or column inches prevent a lengthy examination of any given issue.  Talking points are adopted by the major parties’ respective constituencies as though they were absolute truth.  The vehemence with which one holds an opinion has become a substitute for thoughtful reflection on the reasons why one holds an opinion.

Fort Wayne Daisies player, Marie Wegman, of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League arguing with umpire Norris Ward - Florida State Library and Archives via Flickr (Creative commons license)

Fort Wayne Daisies player, Marie Wegman, of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League arguing with umpire Norris Ward - Florida State Library and Archives via Flickr (Creative commons license)

This must change.  The staggering array of challenges that face us demand a well-informed and engaged citizenry.  Disagreement is the best way to expose the faults in one’s thinking.  To openly and honestly consider the points that are being argued creates a kind of healthy intellectual tension that demands complex thought.  Whether one ultimately comes to agree or not is irrelevant, the value is in the process.  The questioning that occurs within as one struggles to determine the truth or falsity of a claim creates the foundation for growth and change.  When disagreeing, both sides must open themselves to the possibility that they are wrong.  This openness allows one to deliberately choose one’s beliefs, rather than being held as a slave to tradition, or convention, or circumstance.

It is with these thoughts in mind, that I would like to draw your attention to Dangerous Intersection’s comment policy:

We welcome comments, especially those that disagree with our posts and those that point out perceived errors.

That’s what debate is all about.  The only way for me to grow, to learn new things, to explore a world with which I’m unfamiliar is by exposing myself to disagreement.  I frequently read authors with whom I disagree, and I have felt the thrill and uncertainty that comes with changing long-held opinions.   I am not afraid to admit when I am wrong (which has been often), and that has made me more certain when I feel I am right.  However, I’m painfully aware of how much more I have to learn.  So please, I beg of you, disagree with me.  Point out the errors that I am making, and don’t be offended if I do the same for you.  Help me see the world the way you see it, and perhaps we can both learn something along the way.

Last week, Dan posted about the Hierarchy of Disagreement.  Can you imagine how different the political landscape would be if our politicians and pundits would confine their speeches and commentary to the top half of the pyramid?  Disagreement would become a tool to educate ourselves, rather than a symptom of rabid partisanship.   Issues that hold the potential to reshape the direction of the country would contain the promise of meaningful participation in the political process.  Instead, these issues have become a banal “topic of the day” in which both sides exchange soundbites, leaving most of the public feeling unsatisfied and displeased with the process.  Is it any wonder that Congressional approval ratings are hovering around 30%, while disapproval ratings are around 60%?  A decades long trend of declining voter turnout is also a symptom of this disaffection with the process.

Both left and right constituencies are pressuring Congress to slow the legislative process down, with the goal of making sure that both the Congress and the public understand what a given bill contains before passing it.  Colin Hanna, president of the conservative Let Freedom Ring organization, was quoted by CBS News:

Legislation has become so complex, you can really make the argument the system the framers devised is broken,” he said. “Most bills are voted upon without those voting understanding much of what’s in it.”

That’s when members are forced to resort to speed readers. “It makes a mockery of the process,” Hanna said.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) as much as admitted that there’s no point in having one’s representative read the bill, without also alotting “two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill.”  It seems clear that the country is demanding a more informative and deliberate political process.  This process will necessarily entail a great deal of disagreement, but the goal ought to be to have sincere debate rather than jingoism.  Witness the current fascination with “death panels” in the media to get an idea of the depths to which our public discourse has sunk.

In the end, the only things we have to lose from attempting to gain a greater understanding from one another are our own misconceptions.  The internet is a powerful force for communication, but it does not discriminate in the types of communications presented.  It’s up to us to generate the type of clear, honest, compelling, and informed debate that can help guide this country in a direction that we consciously choose.  Educating ourselves is not only our right and prerogative, it’s our obligation– even more so today, as it seems the corporate media and opportunist politicians have largely abdicated their role in educating the populace.

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Category: Communication, Culture, Current Events, Education, Media, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (6)

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  1. Jeff B says:

    I must agree with your premise of disagreemnent. The American public seems to have fallen into an ADD, intellectually-deprived state where they can only think and communicate in sound bites, as you noted. In his book Idiot America, Charles Pierce explains how the American crank can perpetuate ridiculous ideas by following 3 basic principles.

    1. Any theory is valid if it moves units (sells stuff).

    2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.

    3. Fact is that which enough people believe.

    Open discussion and disagreement is necessary in a free-thinking, self-governing society. I just wish more people would understand that you can discuss, disagree with ideas, but still respect the person afterwards. Too many people are offended by the slightest disagreement, and sometimes friends are lost. This makes discussion uncomfortable and sometimes impossible with some people.

    Good article….. I'll probably disagree with your next one 😉

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: As I read your post, I kept thinking "Having a meaningful discussion is a lot of work." I also kept thinking, "Having a meaningful discussion is dangerous because you need to have an open mind yet having an open mind (as you point out) might change you in ways you don't want to be changed.

    I work with some excellent attorneys who expect to have our ideas criticized when we discuss our cases. That's the only way to improve our cases. When we don't get good constructive criticism, we are often disappointed; we often go back to our offices and try to cut up our own cases.

    Many people are not used to this approach, however, and they miss out on opportunities to think things through in better ways. Don't get me wrong . . . it usually feels good at a gut feeling to have someone say "Excellent Job! Perfect!" But unless it comes from someone who is usually highly critical, it leaves you wanting.

    It seems that a place where many people go wrong in oral conversations is that they are too insecure to listen to ideas that seemingly conflict with their own ideas. What we SHOULD do is latch onto those apparent disagreements and explore them. They are usually great opportunities to determine whether the "disagreement" is a matter of semantics or whether their is a fundamental perceptual or experiential disconnect.

    Maybe the best way to illustrate how to have a discussion is to point out how NOT to have one. I nominate . . . (drumroll) BillE : http://dangerousintersection.org/2006/10/22/who-c

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Jeff B: You are exactly right. Too many people take criticism of their ideas as a personal attack, which is part of what Erich is expressing as well. That sense that we personally have something very real at stake, and if we were to open ourselves to changing our minds, we might lose something that makes us unique.

    I think there's a lot of truth in the list of 3 principles. It seems like it was written with corporations and advertising in mind, but I kept thinking about politicians as I read it.

    Erich- I was very involved in debate in high school and philosophy in college. Both disciplines are similar to the way in which you prepare for cases. Frequently, people that were new to debate or philosophical discussion were unprepared for the type of in-depth questions generated by an examination of any given issue. Lots of people quit the programs as a result, feeling uncomfortable or under assault. The ones who stuck with it though, came to crave that type of criticism and questioning. As you expressed, once you can separate your ego from the question at hand, the important thing is improvement. I think you are correct in that a lot of people are too insecure in their beliefs to expose them to criticism, but I would add that many people are simply unprepared to have a complex oral conversation. So many factors in our society mitigate against the ability to hold complex thoughts in one's head and simultaneously explore them orally. "Multitasking", which is conventionally seen as an ability to deal with complexity, actually has been shown to impair performance in a substantial way. Several authors have expressed concern that the way in which we use the internet is having a harmful effect on their neural circuitry and ability to deal with complexity, especially the written word.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: I know a few people who amaze me about what they are able to accomplish by multi-tasking, even when they are trying to accomplish two or more difficult things more or less simultaneously.

    More often, the people I've observed multi-tasking appear to be much less efficient getting complicated things done than if they had focused on one thing at a time. It's usually not worth my time to have a conversation with people who are monitoring or using their smart phones while we attempt to talk.

    My take-away is that multi-tasking is not for everyone, and shouldn't be promoted as such.

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