Considering the divisive and even destructive nature of current political speech in the United States, we ask under what conditions disagreement can be both constructive and satisfying.
Rob. One of the reasons we wrote this book was our recognition that you and I could talk through our differences of opinion. It was a pleasure to learn from each other, and there was so much to learn considering the differences in our educations and experiences. Think about that: disagreements that led to great satisfaction in learning new things and understanding each other. Now think about the state of public discourse in the United States today (February 17, 2021). People looking at the same world and unable to talk about it without talking past each other. The anger. The unprecedented violence on January 6th. I take no political stance here; there is a far more important question: What are the conditions that allow us to talk constructively, not divisively? In geometry we start with axioms and postulates and logic. But geometry confronts an ideal world, while we live in the real one, a place that does not come with axioms that are all spelled out. Can we begin to get at some of what underlies constructive disagreement? At how we can be together happily by being different? Where would you begin?
James. Looking at it now, it appears this may have been our most notable accomplishment in writing the book! My first two thoughts in reply to your questions are not religious.
Anger is an enormous obstruction to constructive disagreement. American society is marked by an unending cascade of anger. The violence of January 6, 2021 was appalling but revealing—like a bone that breaks because of undiagnosed cancer in it. The break reveals a much deeper, more serious illness. Some have commented that anger is productive but needs an outlet to remain so. Art is an antidote to anger by creating an artificial situation to produce and release it, something much better than the common alternative: violence. Violence multiplies anger even as it releases it. And anger seeks neither truth nor reconciliation.
Next let me point to the need to refresh the experience of friendship. You and I could disagree honestly because of our friendship. So much arguing has become a depersonalized, mindless combat. Like the fantastic but ultimately fruitless combat of World War 1, where technology overwhelmed everything on the battlefield, so much of our current discourse is technologically mediated, meaningless carpet bombing. Friendship becomes like the famous 1914 Christmas soccer truce between enemy trenches: a refreshing encounter of those who have recovered their subjectivity (albeit briefly) in the technological wasteland.
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4 thoughts on “How Can Heartfelt Disagreement Be Constructive?”
James, I want to get underneath your second point about friendship. Of course, being friends made it easier to learn from each other in exploring disagreements. But I think the cause-and-effect flows both ways. Would we be friends, if, for instance, I were a Holocaust denier? Neither of us was alive for that atrocity, but the network of information about it is so extensive that to disbelieve, especially on the grounds of political convenience, would signal a rejection of some common standard of truth—a standard of such depth that it would be hard to talk except to attack each other’s moral bearing. What is that standard? I do not think it is given in Nature, but rather somehow acquired in our most basic interactions with others.
Indeed, if I were to deny the Holocaust, I do not think we would be friends, and this begs the question of what we have in common. Despite our differences, there seems to be some class of facts—no, perhaps better certain modes of argument—that we deem valid. I am just thinking out loud here, but I bet that the mutual respect and the expectation that we can learn from each other depends on this commonality insofar as we are each corrigible, capable of being shown and accepting our own errors. But there is a spectacular irony in this: I seem to be saying that because we both accept some principles that underwrite what we accept as true, we can learn where and why we are wrong. That is extraordinary and paradoxical: our acknowledged uncertainty, our refusal to claim absolute knowledge, seems grounded in some virtually absolute, but so far unidentified, rules of agreement about truth. I hope we can untangle that to learn why, as a community, we often talk past each other and express little more than anger.
Rev. Pike–I am also in agreement that friendship is a crucial part to being able to understand and have discourse without the conversation becoming hostile. People do not become friends without having a sizable amount of empathy for each other. I feel that mentioning empathy is important because without it, I doubt we will ever be able to have constructive conversations between those with different opinions.
Still, reflecting upon what Professor Valenza said, I think that in order to have a productive conversation, both sides need to be moderate. Being able to sit down with someone who participated in the January 6 riot would be a lot more difficult than talking to someone who does not understand but wants to comprehend a movement like BLM is so significant. It may be easier for both parties to appear as ignorant rather than assertive, extreme, and aggressive, as we are more inclined to be benevolent towards those who are open to learning rather than those who make it clear that they believe they are correct.
Thank you for your response, Lauren. Here’s the trouble with “moderate,” and I do not mean this in the least as criticism of what you have written. It seems all too natural to see our particular values embedded in the world as simply aspects of an objective truth. Then, those who do not see as we do are either not seeing correctly or deliberately seeing incorrectly, and in the second case we often attack their morality and sometimes even try to correct it with force. Remember that in the middle of the 20th century, being gay was not only socially awkward in England, but a crime for which you could be arrested. (The genius Alan Turing helped win WW2 and was still not exempt from such charges.)
Since you are young, Lauren, you can well remember being taught ethical principles by your parents, and possibly you look forward to passing your own high standards onto your children. So, how do we cultivate a firm moral basis without encouraging children to objectify their own values to the point that moderation becomes difficult for the reasons I just explained? It’s another aspect of the problem I raised earlier: we need to seek and to respect truth without becoming incorrigible and even hostile to those whose values are different. But are some values—for instance, an assumption of racial superiority—just too different? If so, where do we draw the line?
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