Oh gentle folks,
I was thinking about the nature of disagreement. When I was younger, I used to love a good verbal fisticuffs; lately I have lost the taste. It is, in part, a matter of age, but not only that.
You see, I think there are two ways we can approach a disagreement, any disagreement: as a competition or an exploration. We can either have a discussion to make our point, which means we are competing to win, or we can have a discussion to understand the point the others are making, which means we are exploring an issue.
At times, the competition approach is the one we need. If you are a lawmaker and you want to pass legislations which may mitigate climate change, you want to ‘win’ your argument. Those times are very rare: the vast majority of us are not lawmakers. I am not. It is silly to behave as if we were.
I believe - I came to believe in time - that disagreement is better approached as exploration. You don’t want to win, you don’t want to perform, you don’t want to score points or impress an audience, no, you just want to understand what the other person is thinking, and why, no matter how repugnant their views might be. You want to give the other person a fair chance to show how good folk can entertain bad thoughts; a fair chance to change your mind; or (even better!) to help you come to another opinion altogether, which is neither yours nor theirs.
When I discuss with a climate denier, I want to understand where they come from; when I notice someone does not have the same moral priorities I do, I want to understand why. The beauty of the exploration approach is that, even when you decide to shift to competition and challenge the other person’s mind, you will be better equipped to do that, if you have been listening with honest curiosity and empathy first. Then again, when you are very lucky it will be your mind that will be changed (not by the climate denier, hopefully). Your world will be made larger.
Now. Online discussion is, at least in my circles, almost entirely on the ‘competition’ end of the spectrum, and that is becoming increasingly true for the discussions I find myself trapped in at pubs and cafes. A ‘burn’ is the most successful tweet your fingers may tap, the most successful line you can deliver over a pint. If you don’t perform outrage against whoever the latest bad guys are, then you are part of the problem. The algorithms which brutally regulate so much of our taste do not help: they reward engagement, which means they reward conflict (it’s the ABC of storytelling), which means they reward competition. Then we take that approach with us in the stranger world of blood and bones. The technologies we make, they make us in turn.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with expressing our ideas passionately, and it is only healthy to defend our principles. Yet our ideas and principles are not under attack every time someone disagrees. In most circumstances they simply do not need defending: they need questioning, they need challenging, perhaps changing, a little. This is how we grow.
I am not afraid of competition, I only find it boring. If I find myself in a situation where it is a matter of burning or be burnt, I’d rather back off, these days, climb in my hammock, and read.
Which is what I’m going to do right now.
Until next time,